Professional football clubs are ubiquitous in Europe. Every small to medium sized city has one. But most cities do not have an F.C. Barcelona or Bayern Munich or Manchester United. These are among the ‘super clubs’ of Europe: they win more games, attract more supporters, and make more money than other clubs. These clubs were not always the juggernauts one sees today, however. This paper looks at how they emerged. It tells more of an economic story than a sporting one, recounting a narrative similar to that one might tell about the emergence of successful multinational companies. According to this narrative, super clubs rise by producing increasingly more complex products because of expanding productive capabilities, providing growing opportunities for economic spillovers in the process.
As indicated, this narrative focuses particularly on the ‘capabilities’ that have helped super clubs emerge. This focus draws on an emerging theory about economic complexity, which is used to frame the paper and is briefly introduced in section two (following an introduction to super clubs). The theory posits that production results from the creative combination of economic capabilities—or know-how. Some products require few common capabilities, are produced by everyone, and have relatively low value: like the average football club. Other products require many capabilities (including some that are rare), have high value, and are produced by a select group: like the super club. This theory is used to suggest two hypotheses about how football clubs become super:
- First, clubs do not become super by just producing better versions of the same products (a successful football team). Instead, over time, these clubs produce more complex, higher-value, globally consumed products.
- Second, clubs become super by accumulating new capabilities (or know-how) over time, manifest in new skills and people accessed through a range of ‘catalyst capabilities’ that source the skills. The catalyst capabilities include engagement mechanisms (through which skills are located and contracted), capital, infrastructure, and adaptive leadership.
These hypotheses are put to the test in this study. Section three discusses the method used in such analysis, which is a version of systematic process analysis. It involved tracking the rise of four (generally agreed) super clubs—F.C. Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Manchester United, and Real Madrid—and two clubs that are potentially rising into this group—Manchester City and Swansea City. The work centered on identifying and examining key moments in the histories of the clubs, flushing out the factors that influenced their rise, and translating evidence into common narratives about how super clubs emerge. The findings are contrasted with evidence from historical experience in clubs that enjoy close proximity to the focal clubs but are (arguably) not ‘super clubs’ (like Espanyol, TSV 1860 Munich, Stockport County and Bury, and Rayo Vallecano).
Section four offers findings from the analysis. It shows, first, that all of the super clubs have indeed seen a ‘complexification’ of their product lines—moving progressively towards a more complex and diverse set of services and products revolving around the club ‘brand’. Second, the changes in production are clearly facilitated by expanded capabilities. These include expanded skills and people and catalyst capabilities like engagement mechanisms, capital, infrastructure, and adaptive leadership, which have all been growing with time:
- For instance, all of the clubs started with generalist players and managers but gradually employed specialist players and managers. This has led to the clubs now having large and highly diversified playing and non-playing personnel. The catchment area of this talent has also grown, with skills increasingly sourced from other countries and professions and sectors (showing that skills needed to be super come from a broad community).
- The engagement mechanisms through which new ‘skills and people’ were found are impressive. They include factors outside of the clubs’ control—like economic and political and legal changes that fostered the mobility of skills and people. They also include club-specific global scouting mechanisms, internal football academies, and networks of feeder clubs. Commercial linkages have also helped engage new business skills.
- Capital matters in all cases, and is manifest in both direct contributions of money and in the more general support of paying customers and sponsors willing to contribute to club coffers. Capital sources have diversified and became more complex over time in all the super clubs.
- Infrastructure capabilities also matter a great deal. Super clubs started out with small, locally accessible stadiums where they met, trained, played, and did everything else. Over time, however, the stadiums grew in size, were connected to transportation infrastructure that allowed greater accessibility beyond the local community (through regional roads and trains and even international airports) and added properties to allow for separated match, training, development, and business activities.
- A set of supporting capabilities inside and outside the clubs has also proved vital to foster the emergence of the more complex production in these clubs. These are called ‘adaptive leadership’ capabilities and manifest in clear actions of people in club and local government leadership—to respond to threats and opportunities, learn from other experiences, promote new vision in the face of opposition, establish formal and informal negotiation mechanisms and partnerships, and more.
A conclusion summarizes the paper’s findings by suggesting a simple acronym describing capabilities that foster the rise of super clubs: Special (Skilled People, Engagement mechanisms, Capital, Infrastructure, and Adaptive leadership). It summarizes the story about how emergent and expanded capabilities have fostered production complexity in these clubs, and draws conclusions about the likely capability differences between today’s average and great clubs. The ending commentary discusses how this study adds to literature on sports economics and the economics of complexity. It suggests ways in which future work can build on these contributions.