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Sports Authority

McKenna: John W. Henry, what were you thinking?

| Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Dear John W. Henry, 

Shame on you. 

At least that’s what I was planning on typing this time last week after Liverpool, along with 11 other clubs in England, Spain and Italy, officially announced their mutiny from UEFA to form the infamous “Super League” and its dreaded “closed shop.” 

Alas, I was not scheduled to write a Sports Authority until today and thus had to ball up all my vitriol for an entire week without the cathartic experience of spewing my anger and embarrassment for our club in this column. Now, after Liverpool, along with the other six English “founding members,” sunk the venture by abandoning the project with their tails firmly pinned between their legs less than two days later, my first instinct is to soften my tone a bit. 

After all, your seemingly heartfelt public apology was cute enough. It almost made me forget that you were one of the most influential proponents of the project. 

Previously, you were largely regarded as an incredibly responsible, forward-looking owner. As both a Boston Red Sox and Liverpool fan, I could be nothing but grateful for your vital role in ending two infamous title droughts consisting of a combined 116 years of hurt for two of the most loyal fan bases in all of sports. 

Two Sundays ago, however, I’m afraid you almost instantaneously spirited all that goodwill away, at least in Merseyside. I don’t think Reds fans will ever be more inclined to put traditional allegiances aside and agree with Gary Neville than when the Manchester United legend called your apology an “absolute joke.”  You, along with the owners and chief executives at 11 other clubs, finally woke the football world up to the true dangers of your greed and arrogance.  

Now, I have to place myself among those who don’t think the European game can truly heal itself until you and similarly-minded owners are gone for good. 

As the vital backing you, Manchester United’s Joel Glazer and Arsenal’s Stan Kroenke put behind the failed project continues to emerge, the image of American ownership in European football appears to have been irreparably damaged. 

Maybe “shame on you” is a bit excessive. But as I watched your apology video, listening to your claims that you always knew the project could only succeed with the support of the fans, my only real thought was, “What were you thinking?” 

Before last Sunday, naive supporters like myself liked to claim that Liverpool was different. In an era increasingly defined by profligate spending by superclubs accused of losing touch with their local heritage and fans, Liverpool seemingly provided an alternative for what elite European football could look like. 

State-bankrolled clubs like Qatari-backed Paris St. Germain (who got a major public image boost by refusing to support the Super League) and Abu-Dhabi-funded Manchester City wildly spent their way to the top. The importation of Henry’s “Moneyball” attitudes and targeted spending allowed Liverpool to keep pace and then some. 

Lose your best player, Philippe Coutinho, just when you are on the brink of re-joining England and Europe’s elite? No problem, just collect over $140 million in transfer fees to acquire a world-class defender and goalkeeper to complement one of the best-attacking trios in the world and a high-powered midfield, both of which were assembled for comparatively modest sums. As corporate money dulled atmospheres at famous stadiums like United’s Old Trafford — the supposed “Theatre of Dreams” — the lore of Anfield and the raucous “Kop” only became more poignant. 

Under the effusive and magnetic Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool has been a feel-good club. During his tenure, being a Reds fan has meant enjoying not just a sixth Champions League trophy and a first league title in 30 years, but a sense of moral superiority over most of Europe’s other elite clubs. 

Now, supporters like myself realize that our “purity-test” was short-sighted, just like your enthusiasm for the Super League project. 

Consider the source of your “value signings,” especially the front-three that defined Liverpool’s success before a difficult 2020-21 campaign. Those players are Mohammed Salah from Roma, Sadio Mane from Southampton via Red Bull Salzburg and Roberto Firmino from Hoffenheim. All three of these players came from clubs that Liverpool has played in the Champions League since 2017. Yet, if the “Super League” as proposed would have come to pass, all three of these clubs would have had an incredibly narrow window to qualify for Europe’s most elite competition. 

The “Super League” owners argued the increased revenues from their breakaway endeavor would somehow “trickle down” and surpass the funds these second-tier clubs (so to speak) can generate by qualifying and competing in the Champions League, but no one was convinced. For someone so opposed to the “Galactico” model (I’ll get to this more later), I was honestly surprised how willing you were to cut off the hand that feeds you. 

What I am trying to say, Mr. Henry, is that the image you previously cultivated at Liverpool made your Super League support all the more infuriating. Nouveau-riche clubs like Manchester City and Chelsea usually bear the brunt of the blame when it comes to the rampant greed at the top of European football, but current reports indicate that you and Glazer were really the primary proponents of the project within England, driven, in large part, by angst over keeping up with the big-spending of Manchester City. 

In the end, Mr. Henry, your insecurity, along with that of all the other clubs involved with the project, was laid bare. Despite all the advantages the elite clubs enjoy, you all wanted to effectively destroy any vestige of competitive integrity and meritocracy the game has left. 

In some ways, I get it. The uncertainty that the traditional model of European qualification — and lower down the table, promotion and relegation — creates means the boom-bust cycles you so often ride out with the Sox are simply not viable. Neither is the culture of tanking that dominates American sports. With Liverpool likely not to qualify for the Champions League this year, which throws the club’s transfer plans and financial forecasting for a loop, it is obvious why you would yearn for the certainty of competing in the same tournament year after year, regardless of competitive merit. 

If I was in your shoes and totally unconcerned about stripping away almost everything that makes European football special, I would also aim to implement all the boring drawbacks of American professional sports (like the “closed shop” or franchise model) and ignore useful American-based concepts like the salary cap or roster limits — which could be integrated into the European model to address the rampant inequality among the elite and “everyone else.”

You also caved to FOMO, deciding to be complicit in the preposterous effort by superclubs like Real Madrid and Barcelona to claim that they were “saving football” in order to cover up their internal crises caused by years of mind-boggling mismanagement. 

As Gabriele Marcotti noted back in March, Europe’s elite clubs are committed to killing the current model for the Champions League out of desperation. In a decade of unprecedented growth and commercialization of the game, Financial Fair Play, for all its flaws, helped make top-flight football as a whole a sustainable commercial venture. However, most of the richest, most dominant clubs somehow managed to still get it all wrong. 

Florentino Perez, the primary architect of the Super League, has massive problems on his hands. Real Madrid is over $1 billion in debt and currently playing its home games at its training facility. Perez has tied Madrid’s brand to bringing in “Galacticos” — hugely expensive, high-profile transfer signings of some of the world’s top players — year after year, but he has admitted publicly that without the Super League, he is unsure of how could fund a move for a Kylian Mbappe or an Erling Haaland in the near future. 

At Barcelona, the crises are even worse. It took a pandemic to truly expose most of this gross incompetence, but somehow, people like Perez and yourself tried to twist the narrative to explain why European football “needed” to rid itself of almost all competitive uncertainty and excitement.  

The Super League debacle laid bare why the spirit of the free market is anathema to the elite clubs attempting to perpetually cement their hegemony at the top. The bigger clubs want larger, guaranteed rewards from their huge investments without having to manage higher risks.

Mr. Henry, your tactics long seemed like a foil to the arrogance and profligacy of Perez. At the most crucial moment, however, you chose to walk in lockstep with one of the vainest men in football. 

Perez, for all his nonsense and bluster, is right that football is far from perfect.

Instead of providing genuine solutions to the massive inequality that currently defines the game, though, you and your fellow conspirators, blinded by greed and self-interest, presented one of the worst alternatives imaginable, one which fans proved would never stand. 

To be quite honest, Mr. Henry, I think Liverpool fans all know what you were thinking when you helped spearhead this selfish project. 

It’s just such a shame because we lied to ourselves for years that you actually cared about the sport you invested in.  

Sincerely,

A supporter who’s “Not mad. Just Disappointed.”

(But actually very, very mad too)

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