By Rory Smith
Pete Rozelle’s immediate reaction could not accurately be described as unbridled enthusiasm. He was 33. He had, for the last three years, been the general manager of the Los Angeles Rams. He was suave, charming and well liked. But he was nevertheless starting to wonder whether running an NFL team was really the job for him.
And then, outside the Kenilworth Hotel in Miami in January 1960, he was cornered by a cadre of the league’s most fearsome power brokers: the Mara brothers, Jack and Wellington, owners of the New York Giants; Dan Reeves, the Rams’ benefactor; and Paul Brown, the coach and founder and all-purpose potentate of the team in Cleveland that still bears his name.
They had an offer to make Rozelle. They did not want him to run a franchise. They wanted to put him in charge of the whole league.
It was an offer, in Rozelle’s mind, that he had to refuse. “You’ve got to be kidding,” he told them, according to Michael MacCambridge’s magisterial history of the league, “America’s Game.” “That is the most ludicrous thing I have ever heard.”
Rozelle’s logic was simple. The job of NFL commissioner looked an awful lot like a poisoned chalice. The league’s various owners were split on almost every issue imaginable — not only on who should be commissioner, but also whether to add another slate of expansion teams, whether to sign a collective television deal and how to stave off the threat of the rival American Football League.
There was even contention over where, exactly, the league’s offices should be. Rozelle was not the only one who might have looked at the job description and decided he would have to be a fool, or a madman, to accept.
Still, over the course of the afternoon, Rozelle was won over. He was convinced by Reeves, Brown and the rest that his candidacy would be successful, that the issues could be resolved, that he would “grow into” the position. His wife, Jane, reassured him that he would be a good fit. Later that day, Rozelle was elected commissioner.
The challenges faced by the NFL of the early 1960s are alien to the Premier League of 2023. The Premier League is, by almost any measure, a picture of health. It is the most popular domestic sports league of all time. Television has made it rich beyond measure. It is a playground for billionaires and private equity funds and nation states. It does not fear the emergence of a rival; if anything, its primacy is such that it is asphyxiating its former peers, a wealth gap that isn’t good for the game.
Last Saturday, the Premier League returned after a brief hiatus for international duties with a top-of-the-table meeting between Manchester City and Liverpool, the game that has become its marquee fixture. City is the world’s dominant team. Liverpool is one of soccer’s grandest names. The two teams are packed with global stars, and each is led by one of the most influential coaches of their generation. Millions tuned in to watch. If the Premier League is in crisis, it has taken a strange form.
And yet, below the surface, the competition is buffeted by currents that Rozelle would recognize. Earlier this month, the clubs of the Premier League met in London for one of their periodic conferences. Among other matters, they voted on whether to introduce a ban on — and this is catchy — “related party loans.”
In truth, this is hardly an existential matter for the league. (It is far more pressing, and far more problematic, elsewhere.) More and more teams in England, as is the case across Europe, are now part of so-called multiclub networks, in which owners possess not one but a whole stable of teams.
The Premier League had, correctly, recognized that this offered teams a chance to circumvent the competition’s extremely lax rules on spending: Nottingham Forest could, say, take a player on loan from its sister club, Olympiacos, at a cheaper rate than it might have to pay on the open market, boosting its performance without affecting its balance sheet.
The fact that this is only an issue now, of course, has nothing to do with Forest’s links to Greece or Brighton’s relationship with a team in Belgium but with Newcastle, which is owned by the same Saudi sovereign wealth fund that has spent the last few months stuffing its four domestic teams with superstars. The Premier League wanted to head off the prospect of those players being conveniently diverted to Newcastle at discounted rates.
But the motion did not pass. The Premier League’s rules state that, to be approved, any vote requires the support of 14 of its 20 teams. This time, it fell one short. Seven teams decided, essentially, that the idea of related party loans was a good one. It is no surprise that those seven teams either are, or soon might be, part of multiclub systems.
It would be naive, though, to assume that the motives on the other side of the argument were any more pure. It is possible that some of the 13 who did back the idea of a ban did so because they believed the loophole might in some way undermine the integrity of the league, or because they felt there really ought to be rules governing a sporting competition. More likely — as suggested by the timing — they saw a chance to deny their rivals a possible advantage.
There is nothing new in this. Several years ago, a number of teams put to the league the idea that they might pool the performance data produced by their games, so as to allow teams to better understand their opponents. Bundesliga of Germany had already adopted a collective approach. A majority of teams rejected it. Such a move would, they said, favor the clubs that had been early adopters of analytics.
This is how the Premier League works: as a sort of tyranny of a self-interested majority. And, on the surface, teams confusing what is in their interests with what is in the interests of the league as a whole has done little harm. The league has grown to become a global behemoth. It is probably now Britain’s greatest cultural export.
Increasingly, though, that approach appears to be nearing a breaking point. Manchester City has been charged with — although not found guilty of — 115 breaches of the league’s financial regulations. This month, Chelsea brought to its attention huge discrepancies in its books.
The day before the league’s executives met in London to present craven self-interest as a form of democracy, Everton was stripped of 10 points in the standings for surpassing the maximum loss permitted by the league. (A lesson here: If you tell people that the aim is to lose no money, but that they can lose $130 million without being punished, they will assume that $130 million is not so much a ceiling as a target.)
In a 41-page report exploring the Everton case, Paragraph 107 is the key. Part of the evidence submitted by Everton, it says, came from a representative of the club who explained that his job was not to make sure that it met the league’s financial requirements, but to “protect and interpret” those requirements “to the benefit” of his employer.
“The Commission notes that the Premier League already needs to devote considerable resources to monitoring compliance by its member clubs,” the report adds. “If all clubs were to adopt a similar approach, the Premier League’s task would become yet more challenging.”
That should not be the case, of course. The teams of the Premier League should understand that for a sporting competition to have any validity, any meaning, it needs to have an agreed-upon set of rules. But what Everton, Chelsea and Manchester City prove — like the vote on related party loans — is that the clubs do not want to engage with those rules in good faith. They see them instead as rules to be manipulated and circumvented and sometimes ignored, and view doing so as all part of the game.
Whether that does any actual damage is difficult to say. The allegations against Manchester City have done little to dampen enthusiasm for the league, just as the sight of Newcastle reaching the Champions League with Neymar and Cristiano Ronaldo — on loan — would hardly drive fans away.
There comes a point, though, when a fracture happens. Perhaps that is among the clubs, so ensconced in their own universes that they can no longer agree on anything. Or perhaps that is between the teams and the fans, once the asterisks start to pile up in previous seasons and nobody is sure whether what they are watching will actually count.
There are two ways of averting that. One, rather utopian, is to persuade the clubs to work more collectively, to understand that growth is a shared endeavor and that their success is codependent. The other is to create an office, one with genuine power, to enforce the rules (ideally in real time), to issue punishments and to protect the interests of the league.
On several occasions in the 1990s, the Premier League sent emissaries to the United States to see what English soccer could learn from America’s major leagues. They came back with an awareness of the power of television, an understanding of the significance of corporate revenue, and a surprisingly long-standing conviction that cheerleaders would be a good idea in a Yorkshire winter.
Nobody, it seems, recommended instituting a commissioner to shape and guide their business. Given where the Premier League finds itself now, caught in an impasse between irreconcilable camps, it is apparent that is something of an omission. If the clubs cannot willingly work together, cannot operate for their own wider benefit, then it is obvious they have to be made to do so.
The only problem, of course, is the obvious one. The clubs themselves would have to vote on not only the identity of the commissioner, but also the existence of one. As ever, they would do so entirely along the lines of their own self-interests. In that case, and in that case alone, though, they might just find an unfamiliar unanimity.
It is not absolutely clear, at this precise moment, if Inter Miami will be taking part in the tournament that everyone is talking about: the eternally prestigious Riyadh Season Cup.
On Nov. 21, Turki al-Sheikh, the chair of the General Entertainment Authority in Saudi Arabia, was under the distinct impression that he had booked the world’s finest Barcelona tribute act to be part of a three-team tournament featuring Miami’s fellow “giants” — his words, not anyone else’s — Al-Nassr and Al-Hilal.
A few hours later, sadly, it became clear that nobody had told Inter Miami. “Earlier today, an announcement was issued stating that Inter Miami is scheduled to play in the Riyadh Season Cup,” the club said in a statement that is, by any standards, a classic of the genre. “This is inaccurate.”
It seems a fair bet to assume that this all ends with Inter Miami pitching up in Saudi Arabia in a few months anyway, and that the dispute was rather more about who was allowed to announce the news, and when, than it was about the actual content of it. Still, even if the whole thing does not materialize, it is hard to escape the impression that the episode offers a fleeting glimpse of soccer’s future.
The appeal of bringing Miami to town, of course, is the prospect of bringing Lionel Messi and Ronaldo into direct competition again. It would be, as the now-disputed news release had it, a “Last Dance” sort of occasion, an assertion undercut only a little by the fact that: one, the actual “Last Dance” — the documentary series — is about a meaningful championship, not a friendly match; and two, there is every chance that either the Saudi authorities or MLS will find a way to have them play each other again at the next available opportunity.
Still, such quibbling is probably futile at this point. Inter Miami against Al-Nassr in Riyadh, in February, is not even a remote imitation of the sorts of games that defined the rivalry between Messi and Ronaldo. It is instead an exhibition, a staged production, more than a sporting contest. It is soccer as brought to you by WWE.
But it is also, needless to say, what people want. Fans will buy tickets to see Messi and Ronaldo face-to-face once more. Broadcasters will pay — perhaps not much, but still — to show the game. People will tune in, idly, reluctantly, with half an eye on something else. And as they do, soccer will take another step on the road to becoming something further from sport and closer to what might best be described as “general entertainment.”