“Of the three ingredients that soccer offers, the most essential to its success is neither the ball nor the players but the flag. . . .” Soccer captures “the clan (football club), the temple (the stadium), the war (the enemy is the other club or another city or another country), and eternity (a shirt and a flag whose—supposedly glorious—tradition is inherited by successive generations). In soccer, you never walk alone.”
Dr. Ignacio Palacios-Huerta, professor at the London School of Economics, wrote these lines in his book Beautiful Game Theory: How Soccer Can Help Economics. Six years later, he is confident that the game’s future will look very different, starting with how we experience soccer.
The biggest unknown is whether the football game moves from a unique “social identity good” to an “individual consumption good.” An evolution like this could make the beautiful game “even more global,” boosting consumption but also having “less attachment, less identity, and less social capital.”
New Bosses, Same Beautiful Game
When we asked him about modern ownership, Palacios-Huerta affirmed that there are two kinds of contemporary football owners: the “learners and adapters” and the “inefficient and non-adapters.” The former is excellent news for soccer. However, in the latter case, some owners come from outside the industry and have little interest in understanding the business of football, potentially hurting the future of the beautiful game.
On the impact of the increasing number of American owners in European Soccer, Palacios-Huerta said: “The USA is a country with closed leagues in all the major professional sports. So I am a bit concerned about this to the extent that [American owners in football] appear to support (or so it seems to me), perhaps for cultural reasons, a move towards having similarly closed leagues in European football.”
In Palacios-Huerta’s view, that would be a significant mistake, maybe “not in the short run but definitely in the medium and long term. Open leagues with promotion and relegation are an essential component” of football culture around the world and “a key determinant of its success and what it means to people.”
“It would even be a mistake to have a closed or semi-closed Super European league with a handful of big clubs (which seems to be the ongoing discussion these days),” he said, as it will adversely affect the national leagues in the medium and long term.
Palacios-Huerta also mentioned that “the more successful owners tend to be those willing to engage and not be distracted by their egos. They do not treat soccer as a toy or a pastime. But, of course, this applies not only to new American owners but also to all others from Saudi Arabia, China, Russia, etc.”
Tech Vs. Tradition
What about streaming services and on-demand access to soccer? How might these affect the beautiful game’s future? Palacios-Huerta stated that current technological advancements make the soccer experience at home more affordable than in the stadium.
He also questioned how aware the average soccer management professional is of the opportunities presented by these new ways to consume football.
“Imagine you are a Liverpool FC member with access to unique content, such as the U-23 games, unique videos of training, access to individual in-house press conferences, and other forms of content. As an example, Amazon Prime may soon strike a top club deal that will look like this,” he said.
“New technologies will allow fans’ experiences to be enhanced around the beautiful game. Technological progress may benefit the big clubs, but not only them. Smart smaller clubs with good management may find creative ways to grow a more significant fan base this way.”
COVID-19 Drying Up New Talent
Despite the unprecedented challenges to the game, Palacios-Huerta believes COVID-19 will not impact talent production from historic meccas like South America. Instead, more structured youth systems like those in Europe might see a slightly different outcome.
The accelerated industrialization of the 19th century brought soccer to new heights as a cultural expression around the world. The beautiful game has evolved at an even faster rate over the last decade. However, new technologies, globalized ownership, and an economic downturn offer significant uncertainties to the sport as we once knew it.
One thing will remain. Soccer will find a way to continue capturing the clan, the temple, the war, and eternity.