1992 - Football's Big Bang
Nineteen Nighty-two. A relatively busy year what with the Olympic games being held in Barcelona, Bill Clinton elected President of the United States of America and Whitney Houston set a then singles chart record with "I Will Always Love You" by staying at number one for 14 straight weeks.
In the football world, we witnessed one of the (if not the) biggest changes in domestic and European football in decades with the revamping of the English First Division and The European Cup.
Before we look at the changes it's important to remember how football was viewed at the time. Football had come off the back of a dark period in the eighties, with rising hooliganism across Europe, major stadium disasters (Hillsborough, Bradford, and Heysel), crumbling stadiums, and declining attendances. There's no doubt about it, the game was in a mess. On a society level, football was the underclass sport sneered at by the middle and upper classes. Margaret Thatcher's disdain for the sport was evident when she gave her full support to UEFA'S ban of all English clubs from Europe for five years after the Heysel tragedy. Even our now football-loving tabloid paper The Sun called football "a slum sport for slum people". In essence, football was a dirty word.
Fast forward to 2021 and football is a world away from how society viewed the beautiful game back then. A booming industry that has gone mainstream with more money involved than you can shake a stick at. The revamp of the old First Division and The European Cup played a major part in this transition, so let's explore how it all came about and why.
The FA Premier League
When we talk about breakaway leagues and super leagues (especially when it comes to Europe), we tend to concede that commercialism and greed in the sport have gone too far, with the largest clubs determined in their efforts to maximise revenue and brand exposure at all costs, ignoring the general sentiment of fans and breaking away from tradition.
It's important to remember, that the Premier League is exactly that, a breakaway league pushed forward by the old 'Big Five' which included Spurs, Arsenal, Man Utd, Liverpool, and Everton. These clubs were frustrated with the lack of commercial nous of The Football League (which governed the old First Division with a shared revenue model) and wanted a larger slice of television revenues as it was split with the divisions below it. The old First Division was undervalued, under-loved, and severely underdeveloped from a commercial standpoint, and the top clubs had cottoned on to this.
The key figures behind each of these clubs, including David Dein of Arsenal and Irving Scholar of Spurs, had seen a vision of the future in America's National Football League (NFL). Revenues in the league dwarfed that of the old English First Division, thanks to large TV contracts and modern sold-out stadiums with excellent hospitality facilities. Even quirky matchday events such as cheerleaders (introduced and later dropped), mascots, and giant jumbo screens (Highbury added one of their own in October 1994) were noted down on their American tours and implemented on this side of the pond throughout the nighties. The NFL was run like a business, with clubs creating world-class marketing and business development departments. This was in stark contrast with the English game, with its crumbling stadiums, virtually non-existent commercial activities, and media-shy culture.
The majority of clubs didn't want TV cameras in grounds, for fear of impacting already dwindling attendances. At the time, gate revenue made up the vast majority of club incomes, and any perceived threat to that was combatted extensively. This fuelled an increasingly strained relationship between the Football League and the television networks, with the 'Big Five' frustratingly stuck in-between a well-drilled lobby of smaller sides resistant to change and television networks pushing for more coverage.
The biggest sides looked over the pond with envy, seeing how the American sports market has become awash with cash and saw the potential of exposing the game to a wider audience on the television back home. A short-term solution to stave off the inevitable happened in the late eighties as The Football League agreed to a new TV deal with ITV. It papered over the cracks, with the biggest sides still forced to share TV revenue with the smaller sides nor were they able to negotiate their own TV deals. advertising, corporate sponsorship, or commercial activities.
The tragic events of Hillsborough proved to be the real catalyst for change, making the breakaway league proposition hugely appealing to a wider range of clubs. The Taylor Report of 1990 left clubs with a huge unwanted bill, as grounds across the country were forced to be upgraded to all-seater (many opted to relocate to a new ground). With the coffers running dry, the potential for an influx of TV cash swayed many club directors when it came to abandoning The Football League at the voting table later down the road.
Change finally came on the 27th of May 1992. After various meetings between the FA, Football League, London Weekend Television, ITV & Sky over a two-year period, the Premier League was officially formed after a bid from ITV was outdone by Rupert Merdoch's Sky at the last minute. The move paved the way for the satellite company to grow into the media giant it is today, using football as the hook to bring in subscribers to its new satellite television service (which had been failing miserably before entering into the football scene). Cue the now famous 'it's a whole new ball game' adverts that are readily available on YouTube, with sides such as Coventry City, Oldham Athletic, Wimbledon, and Nottingham Forest gracing the league (although not for much longer).
An interesting side story in all of this was that Alan Sugar, who just bought Spurs, owned the satellite dishes installed by BSkyB and nudged Rupert Murdoch to 'blow ITV's bid out of the water'. BSkyB's bid of £304m over five seasons wooed the representatives, gaining the exact number of votes needed to win the bid. On the 15th August 1992, with Andy Gray and Richard Keys in the hot seats at Sky HQ, the first balls were kicked in a jam-packed fixture list, ushering in a new era of football.
The Champions League
The importance of the Champions League cannot be underestimated, generating over £2.5 billion for participating clubs across Europe in the 2019/2020 season alone, with the biggest sides hoovering up the majority of cash.
It's a competition so cash-rich, that its producing legitimate cracks in domestic leagues and cups all across Europe as the biggest sides make long and successful Champions League campaign a priority over its domestic counterpart. Even a domestic league victory isn't enough if a Champions League campaign ends early, just ask Mauricio Sarri, who saw his side win the League (for the ninth year running) but crash out at the last-16 against Lyon. His sacking was inevitable as the board at Juve totaled up the lost income from an almost expected deeper Champions League campaign.
Whilst this European trophy has always been highly sought after, it's only since the 1992 rebrand that clubs across the continent have placed extra emphasis on it due to the commercial benefits at play. We have to take a few steps back to remember what the old European Cup was, how it worked and why it re-launched into the world's greatest club competition we know today.
Since its inception in 1955, the European Cup has proved exceptionally popular, with Alfredo Di Stefano leading Real Madrid on to early domination in the early years before inevitable cycles followed that included dominant period by the likes of Ajax in the seventies and AC Milan in the early nineties.
Its format was relatively simple but incredibly restrictive (compared to the modern-day equivalent) with only one team per domestic league, the champions, entering the competition. A knock-out formula was the original structure, which lasted for nearly 40 years. The concept of a group stage, quarter-finals, and semi's were unheard of at the time.
With television becoming a more permanent feature in the world of football, entrepreneurs such as Silvio Berlusconi saw the potential of the European Cup but were frustrated with the current format. A fixture, which has now gone down in history as the game that changed the European Cup forever, involved Maradona's Napoli taking on Real Madrid in 1987 as early as the first-round knockout. This angered Berlusconi, who believed a fixture of this magnitude should take place towards the end of the competition, not at the beginning. By allowing the biggest sides to play at the latter stages of the competition, would make the competition more appealing and lucrative for all the parties concerned.
Berlusconi commissioned a new 10-point blueprint for football through the marketing agency Saatchi and Saatchi, which proposed for a European Super League based on merit, tradition, and television. This would force the biggest clubs in Europe to play each other more frequently but at the latter stages of the competition. The league would see two domestic teams involved (rather than one) and the idea was to eliminate commercial risk for the continent's biggest sides and maximise the opportunity television could now provide.
The idea was ultimately rejected by UEFA but it spooked them enough to revolutionise the competition just in time for the 1992 season. Aside from the name change and rebrand, gone were the old knock-out stages in round one, and in came seeded group stages. A knockout semi-final would be added later in 1994, revising its way in the nineties to become the format we all know and love today.. Berlusconi had got his wish through his power of influence, orchestrating the path for the biggest sides to play in the competition for longer and against their equal counterpart more frequently in highly appealing television spectacles.
There's a clear pattern between the inception of The Premier League and The Champions League, one of the top-tier club's desire to expand and grow beyond their limited current competition format. Fuelled by growing television revenue and almost limitless global market opportunities, it appears clubs are never satisfied with the cards they currently have been dealt, seeking further growth in a competition that offers less risk and more financial guarantees.
Over the last three decades, UEFA has kept the big clubs happy, and any talks of a breakaway league have been quashed until recently. The infamous announcement of The Superleague back in April 2021, revealed a serious appetite for further reform, which would eliminate commercial risk further by offering a closed competition for a select few, increasing revenues through more frequent top-tier ties and the total number of games.
The battle over the next decade will see The Champions League and domestic leagues such as The Premier League go head-to-head, as the European competition seeks to expand and chip away at the domestic format.
The Premier League, for all its brand appeal and financial might, is venerable to these impending changes and will have to stand aside and watch as the Champions League reforms and grows into the beast Europe's elite sides have always wished for.