The mooted European Super League (ESL), a concept developed and pushed for by some of Europe’s leading soccer clubs, was, in theory, a response to esports and the ongoing digitization and online presence of modern sports fans. While so-called legacy fans typically watch full matches and engage with a variety of content, the modern fan, who has grown up in the era of YouTube and esports, is more likely to dip in and out of the action. In response to these changing behaviours, the ESL concept was born, aimed at fans in Asia and the US.
Certainly, fewer Gen-Z viewers are sitting down to watch a full live match than previous generations. The declining number of avid fans is not just a soccer problem. According to ESPN data, the number of ‘avid sports fans’ dropped from 42% a decade ago to 34% in 2020. Sport is now competing with other entertainment sources, such as TV and gaming, which take up a lot of our increasingly limited free time.
ESL a pushback against changing behaviours
The focus on streaming platforms and competing with esports is a clear sign that clubs wish to target a younger, global audience. For example, Andrea Agnelli, the chairman of Italian football club Juventus, told Italian newspaper La Repubblica that the Super League was “meant to involve young people and compete against Fortnite and Call of Duty.” In 2017, Juventus rebranded with a new, more simplistic logo which was more in line with the digital age, targeting more directly its younger fans.
Online esports gaming tournaments, such as the Overwatch League, get millions of viewers. On Twitch alone, the average daily viewing figures for Fortnite at any given moment is 165,000, as of 27 April 2021. According to Newzoo, the global audience for esports is expected to reach 577 million by 2024.
The Financial Times reported on 19 April 2021 that ESL organizers were in early discussions with the biggest streaming platforms, notably Facebook, Amazon, and Disney, to secure broadcast deals. Sports streaming service DAZN denied any involvement with the ESL, despite reports that it was willing to pay $3.5bn for the TV rights.
Esports are attracting big brand backers
Non-endemic sponsors are also on the rise in esports, with big brands such as Coca-Cola and BMW signing up. From a commercial standpoint, global brands now see esports as an ideal way to connect with a younger market. A case study of jersey sponsorship at the League of Legends World Championships revealed a significant jump in the number of non-endemic jersey sponsorships for the 2020 edition, from 37% of all recorded jersey sponsorships in 2019 to 51% in 2020.
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This comparison between esports and traditional sports, such as soccer, reveals the changing nature of sport as a concept. Esports players are athletes, with sponsorship deals from athletic brands such as Puma and NIKE worth millions. In January 2020, Nike partnered with global esports organisation T1 Entertainment and Sports, designing all the team and company’s uniforms.
This will continue to present a threat to traditional sports such as soccer. European leagues and teams sustained significant financial losses during the pandemic, paying rebates on media rights deals and sponsorships. If sponsors feel they can get more bang for their buck in esports, this will impact football teams’ revenue potential.
Hence, traditional sports such as soccer will need to evolve to keep up with the expectations of their audiences worldwide. The big teams in soccer are in direct competition with esports for media rights, sponsorships, and viewers. In this sense, while the ESL is dead in the water, discussions on changing the traditional model of soccer tournaments are likely far from over.