News & Insights | Posted April 25, 2021
Money, money, money. When corporate interests go bad (or mad)…
… a cautionary tale from the European ‘Superior’ League
It’s over 15 years since the American-Canadian law professor Joel Bakan wrote his bestseller, “The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power”.
You couldn’t walk through airport departures in the early 2000s without seeing a WH Smiths with the book stacked high on the recommendations table, amidst a wave of anti-big business polemics that made their way onto our bookshelves and cinema screens – Fast Food Nation being the most famous.
“The Corporation” always seemed to stand out as something different.
As that well-known anti-capitalist rag The Economist said in a quote proudly printed on the back of the paperback, “Unlike much of the soggy thinking peddled by too many anti-globalisers, The Corporation is a surprisingly rational and coherent attack on capitalism’s most important institution.”
Joel Bakan’s critique was a pretty solid challenge to modern-day business, questioning whether companies have the capacity to put anything else ahead of profit.
My answer to that has always been categorically ‘yes’.
Having advised and worked for several big companies in the UK and overseas I’ve seen the massively positive impact business has for their employees, their local communities and wider society – and well run companies prove time and again that the profit motive doesn’t have to compete with society’s rightful expectation that companies will behave like good corporate citizens.
Like many though, I was back to asking myself the question when news broke that 12 of Europe’s self-styled ‘biggest’* clubs had decided to breakaway from UEFA’s Champions League tournament to create their own.
* others may swap that for ‘most arrogant’
The kicker being that they would invite a small number of other clubs to participate in their new European Super League each year, but the 12 founder clubs could never be excluded from it themselves.
The ‘Superior’ League’s press release was full of corporate bunkum – implying that without the benevolence and vision of these grand clubs’ new format, the entire economic model around European football would be left teetering on the edge, and the quality of football and the very fabric of the ‘football pyramid’ would be left to deteriorate.
It was plain as day this was a power grab by over-zealous owners, looking to protect and then increase their profit – and the value of their assets – from the ‘beautiful game’.
It will have come too late to feature in the The Corporation’s aptly-named “Unfortunately Necessary Sequel” which is ironically hitting screens as we speak. But this must surely have been the case study par excellence of when corporate interests go bad (or mad) in the pursuit of profit.
“The corporation, like the psychopathic personality it resembles, is programmed to exploit others for profit.” – Joel Bakan couldn’t have hoped for a better example to prove his point.
So transparent and cut-throat was the European ‘Superior’ League’s exploitation of the rest of the football community, that their project fell apart in less than 72 hours, doomed by the weight of condemnation thrown their way by football fans, pundits and politicians alike.
Of course, the club owners behind the project aren’t the first people to put profits ahead of the interests of the fans, local communities, players and club staff.
The track records of FIFA, UEFA and many of the governing bodies running our national support are hardly ones of putting self-interest and profit to one side.
And for that reason alone it would be easy to dismiss the European Super League debacle as something peculiar to the world of football, that would never be replicated in the mainstream world of business.
I don’t think we can be so sure.
There seem to be many lessons from whole affair that could be applied to the world of business, but three in particular seem vital for business to recognise – and to consider whether we can rise to the challenge of ensuring the profit-motive has some natural and socially-responsible limits:
1. Companies need to earn their licence to operate — and continue to earn that right.
Although governing bodies – and Governments – were already tooling up with lawyers to fight the Super League founders in court, the ESL project was ultimately undone by the court of public opinion.
As major companies from banks to supermarkets to energy companies, as well as more controversial firms like miners and oil firms, have learned to their cost over the years, the ability for companies to operate without Government or regulatory intervention can come to a juddering halt without an implicit, or explicit licence to operate from their local and customers.
2. Respect your customer.
The Super League concept was built on a fundamental strategy to capture more revenue from future fans outside ‘traditional markets’ rather than protecting revenue from current fans.
True to their ‘Superior’ League mindset the ESL founder clubs seemed comfortable characterising their current fan base as ‘legacy fans’, as if their relationship was coming to a slow, but inevitable end.
If ever there was a reminder to respect the support – and value – of customers who have helped build up your business, this was it.
3. Good corporate governance matters – a lot – as does good advice.
Good governance, often with a degree of independent oversight, is critical to the successful running of companies (both public and private) and is key to company boards meeting their fiduciary duty. The ESL project shows the danger of ‘group think’, the lack of independent oversight and the potential for companies to put profit well ahead of any other issues that could impact on the long-term health and sustainability of their business.
Very few people would look at football for lessons on corporate governance – and there is a very strong argument that poor governance is part of the reason plans for the ESL emerged in the first place, with the larger, more successful clubs seemingly thinking it was their right to dictate how the game should be run.
But it is notable that the big German clubs were quick to dismiss the invitation to join the Super League party – no mistake that these clubs are run for the explicit benefit of fans and have fan representatives involved in the running of their clubs.
Whether and how that model could be applied to a business setting is a debate for another day, but the critical issue is seeing the importance of good governance in the smooth long-term running of companies.
And what of good advice? If a company itself can’t stop itself from making poor decisions, can outside advisers help them see the light?
They short answer is they ought to.
The longer answer is that sometimes they are as guilty of the companies they advise of being distracted by money and fees.
Not a single person could see a positive in the proposals , other than the founder clubs – surely their advisers could have raised the red flags.
As the financial backers JP Morgan said, they “misjudged” the way fans would react to the plans.
We’ll never know if they and other advisers warned the clubs against the way they went about their plans, or if they just blindly followed the will of their client.
Either way, there’s a lesson to all advisers that their value is in giving honest, credible and expert advice – and if that advice is ignored, having the confidence to walk away.
Whether those lessons – and others – will be learnt by the people that run the ‘beautiful game’ is questionable.
As the whole ‘project’ (as the sports industry is fond of naming their initiatives) showed, many in the game can be a little blinkered when it comes to their own self interests.
But maybe there’s a lesson for others that’s well worth heeding even if some of our ‘Superior’ clubs won’t.
Anthony Thompson, Partner, 56˚ North