They tear down old buildings because there’s money in it. Here’s how it works.
Developers buy a property and want to build something new on it. Problem is there’s something in the way: a hotel built in 1908, a two-flat that dates back to the neighborhood’s founding. They need city approval to demolish it. So they appear in front of a municipal board, where they typically meet resistance from preservationists. It’s not a robust resistance. The developers have bought friends: architects, engineers, real estate market experts. The preservationists are regular people. Defending existing architecture isn’t a full-time job; it’s something you do in the evening because you care about the character of the built environment and mooring a place in time, because you’re concerned about the creep of gentrification and the forces that transform neighborhoods against the will of folks who like living there.
The developer presents a report that says keeping the old building around would be financially onerous, might cost them ten million extra to create through retrofitting what would be much more expedient to blow up and construct from scratch. Maybe they disingenuously nod toward YIMBY-ism. This new design will bring greater housing density to the area. Isn’t that what you guys want? They leave out the part where the condos they’re installing are priced at rates the working class can’t afford, that if the units lie vacant, they can absorb the loss, which will probably be temporary anyway. Owning land in a place like Boston or Chicago or Seattle or Toronto is hardly ever a bad investment over the long term, and besides, they’re doing what they’re doing here in eight other neighborhoods, maybe eight other cities. This isn’t charity or even honest business so much as speculation. They’re blanketing the roulette table in chips, and the posted odds don’t make any sense. You notice that if somebody bet persistently and aggressively enough, the house would eventually be guaranteed to lose.
The preservationists make a few heartfelt speeches. They don’t have the money to commission reports that refute what the developers have said. Their experts are college professors being generous with their time. The merits of the case might not matter anyway. It’s likely the board they’re presenting to is stocked with real estate industry cronies. The developers will buy anything that allows them to buy more, and it’s not all that expensive to buy a bureaucrat. The decision comes down: the building’s scheduled for demo six weeks from now. The city takes another dismal step toward looking like every other city: a synthetic nervous system of international towers, prefab three-flats, McModernist homes. Glassy and gray, stinking of antiseptic. A surfeit of parking lots. But there’s money in it. So that’s the way it goes.
In the dimmest hours it seems like modern life is made of three things: natural disasters, acts of violence marinated in mental illness and race-hate, and the free market’s shimmering corruption. Anything purely felt is on notice.
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Sports are beautiful, one of humankind’s few perfect inventions. They’re a pillar of mass culture because we’re fundamentally empathetic beings: we delight in watching bodies pushed to their limits, and it feels good to share that interest with others. Like movies and music, they are objectively inessential and yet we order our lives around them. Because when the game is on you exist in a parallel state. The crushing stress of daily life becomes a positive anxiety. You are empowered, paradoxically, by giving yourself over to events that are beyond your control but also blissfully don’t matter. You get to care deeply, without consequences. And have a beer and bitch about your team’s midfield among friends. Sometimes you see something that you didn’t previously think possible and your sense of the universe expands. You feel yourself becoming more generous. Sports are a balm and a thrill and something to look forward to every week. They’re the best.
Like anything enjoyable, they’ve been corporatized to hell. Modern sports are a product, and primarily a conduit for selling other products. Professional teams double as playthings and lucrative investments for plutocrats, like a yacht that surges in value year over year. Games are glorified marketing opportunities exploited to hawk beer and home insurance. Every goal and transition basket is brought to you by the fine folks at a soft drink company and every stadium is funded with taxpayer dollars named after an airline. It’s big business, foul and alienating in all the obvious ways, but we put up with it because the sports themselves are incredibly fun. You wouldn’t want to deny yourself what LeBron James or Leo Messi are capable of just to avoid a few annoying ads. You put on your hazmat suit, turn the TV on, and try to have a good time.
It’s an uneasy relationship. Or actually, this would be a fine place to ditch the pretense: I have an uneasy relationship with sports as they currently exist. I feel myself having a worse time overall, my desire to keep following basketball and football and soccer only narrowly exceeding my disgust with the leagues and owners that control those sports. These are personal questions: when do you begin to feel like what you’re watching is more of a commercial than an entertainment? like you’re being engulfed by someone else’s profit motive? like you’re participating in something that’s harming society? How often do you think about this stuff? I’m thinking about it all the time, lately.
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The Super League died on Tuesday afternoon. It had jolted to life some 72 hours earlier, when twelve of the biggest clubs in Europe announced they were going to form their own operation, existing beyond the governance of the traditional domestic and continental authorities. A competition founded and managed by the Real Madrids and Manchester Uniteds of the world, for the purpose of further enriching the Real Madrids and Manchester Uniteds of the world. This concept has been around in various forms for decades, and every other summer a handful of mega-clubs very publicly explore the possibility. The change has long seemed inevitable, but the news stories on it that circulate also carry a whiff of the well-liked presidential hopeful who doesn’t run in the end. Eventually, eventually—but not now.
One particularly miserable symptom of late capitalism is that the mega-rich seem to find financial risk utterly unacceptable. When they lose money, their minds soon follow, and so it took less than a year of empty stadiums and declining cashflow for the Super League to transform from a nice idea into a necessity. “Us big clubs, we will get a lot of money [from forming the league],” Real Madrid president Florentino Perez told El Chiringuito this past Monday, “and then we will distribute it to everyone. But first we need the money."
The notion of Real Madrid, or even some of the less outrageously wealthy Super League clubs like Atleti or Inter, needing money is downright offensive. Nevermind the fact that with vaccines rolling out and the pandemic subsiding, their revenue streams are going to return to full strength in the very near future. But people like Perez don’t live in the real world. They are the embodiment of the corporation; they live to consolidate influence and capital. If they can credibly sell a power grab as something else, they’ll do it every time. It might detonate the sport as we know it: bleaching identities, cheapening domestic leagues, starving a great many clubs that are rich in history if not in funds. But that’s not the primary concern. Money is a sufficient counter-argument to everything else.
That the real world pushed back so strenuously against the Super League, to the point that it imploded in less than a week, is heartening. Fans from participating and non-participating clubs alike were livid at the announcement, which Florentino and his friends didn’t seem to anticipate, a spectacular failure of a room-reading given that half the SL clubs have supporters’ groups that openly loathe their clubs’ owners. Fan sentiment about the Super League was distilled in a widely shared picture from 2017, Club Africain supporters speaking directly to Paris Saint-Germain’s royal Qatari owners with a tifo that read: CREATED BY THE POOR, STOLEN BY THE RICH. As fans were fuming, UEFA, FIFA, and a cadre of national FAs piled on threats, claiming they would ban Super League players from international play, kick the clubs out of their domestic leagues, and sue the hell out of them. This wasn’t populism so much as vain money-grubbers looking after their own interests, but it did help put the SL to bed. The English clubs pulled out, Atleti and Barcelona retreated, and the gambit quickly disintegrated from there.
The Super Leaguers didn’t have a chance to describe their complete vision, if they even had one, but the basic outline for the league was strikingly American: an NBA or NFL for the most popular sport on the planet, complete with a regular season and a postseason. It would have replaced the Champions League and the SL clubs would have supplemented their coffers participating in domestic matches that would at once seem much less significant—and likely generate much less revenue—than they do now. It would have been a cartel taking a hearty swing at monopolizing soccer’s immense reserves of cash and talent, perhaps finally fully destroying the parochialism that differentiates it from American sports.
Because what do Tottenham and Juventus have to do with each other? Almost nothing, really. A handful of rivalries would have been preserved within the Super League almost by accident, but the great thing about the EPL, La Liga, and Serie A is that they’ve been around for so long that every club touches every other club through geography, politics, class, a history of contests and player movement. La Liga is about Spain: what its various regions make of one another, the ravaging effects of Francoism, absurd governmental rot in Madrid and Valencia, fascists and socialists, Basque and Catalan nationalism. It is also about the decade when Barcelona couldn’t win a game away at Real Sociedad, for some reason. It’s deep and it’s not, but it’s all there, and it has meaning. The sort which a league invented tomorrow would take a century-plus to accrue, and even then: Juventus and Tottenham could play 50 exciting games against each other, and have only the games between them.
Which is what, say, the Lakers and Celtics have. Two great companies—meant to play ball, sure, but Americans do almost nothing without profit in the front of their mind. The Lakers and Celtics exist—were brought into existence—to enrich their stakeholders. The vast majority of clubs in Europe aren’t like that.
Atlético Madrid is the product of three Athletic Bilbao supporters and a handful of disaffected Madridistas. It sounds exceedingly simple, but: in 1903, they thought it would be a cool idea to found an Athletic Bilbao subsidiary in Madrid. Eventually Atleti outgrew their feeder club status, splintered from Athletic, and became their own entity, which was supporter-owned, mostly by working people in the heart of the capital city, until the club was stolen away by a hilariously corrupt real estate developer named Jesus Gil in the late 1980s. That it’s now presided over by Gil’s son is an extremely sore subject. The majority of Atleti fans hate the Gil family, seeing them as a perversion of what the club is supposed to be and once was. To them Atleti’s highly corporatized structure is wrong.
The Lakers were founded in 1947, when a pair of Minneapolis businessmen bought the rights to a dying NBL franchise in Detroit. They moved the organization to the Twin Cities and jumped ship to the BAA—which would soon absorb the NBL and become the NBA—a year later. From there, the Lakers were passed around by various rich guys until Jerry Buss bought and fell in love with the franchise in 1979. It’s been in the family ever since. After 60 years in southern California, the Lakers definitely in some sense belong to the city of Los Angeles, because you can’t purchase exclusive rights to the joy of watching Kareem and Magic, Shaq and Kobe, but in a literal sense it’s private property. You won’t find Lakers fans complaining that the structure of the organization is undemocratic because they’re not involved and never have been. They’re spectators.
Though they’re little more than glorified season ticket holders, Atleti still has club members. Lots of Spanish clubs do, whether they have any actual power or not. In Spanish, they’re called socios. A literal translation: partners. It’s a case of language outliving its meaning. But that old meaning still means something. It expresses a (quixotic) desire for the club to belong to the people who love it the most.
No big club in Europe is truly run by popular consensus. Some are nominally supporter-owned and they hold regular elections for their team presidents, but those presidents are all rich guys who own sizable shares of the club. Barcelona are not a profoundly different entity than the Los Angeles Lakers. But the fans around Europe are not quite ready for their teams to be fully Americanized yet.
It’s telling that the Super League would have included three American owners: the Glazers, the Kroenkes, and the Fenway Sports Group. Who knows what Florentino Perez, Joan Laporta, Andrea Agnelli, and all the other Euro bosses were thinking, but we’re well-acquainted with how American businessmen operate. They probably thought it made intrinsic sense for the brawniest clubs to pool their resources. They would make more money; they would shut out the competition for good. Screw Everton, screw Real Betis, Roma, Udinese, Osasuna, and Burnley. What they failed to understand is that a lot of Real Madrid and Chelsea fans like having Real Betis and Burnley around; they like playing them every year and they like that those games matter. There’s already a Champions League, where Real Madrid and Chelsea can play each other. And that’s quite fun. But it’s not worth the creation of something without anything like a soul, just to have more of that.
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Fan sentiment and UEFA and FIFA’s threats were likely enough to sink the Super League regardless, but a not insignificant part of the equation is that only twelve clubs, drawn from three leagues, signed on to the initial move. It’s not like Florentino and the gang didn’t ask. Paris Saint-Germain (pretty surprisingly) said no, Porto turned them down too. Most notably, the Super Leaguers weren’t able to persuade Bayern Munich or Borussia Dortmund either. Clubs in Germany are bound by a 50+1 rule, which means that at least 51 percent of the organization has to be owned by fans. In general, though Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund are hardly friendly neighborhood co-ops, they operate more like clubs did 50 years ago than Arsenal and Inter do. They’re a little more keenly attuned to the balance between wringing money from the sport and grossing out their supporters. (This is not, by the way, a particularly high bar. Bayern play in Allianz Arena.)
Bayern and Dortmund put out similar statements. They rejected the Super League while strongly supporting Champions League reform. In the short-term, they’ve already won a concession: the CL is moving to a more big club-favorable format in 2024. Over the long-term, they’ll continue to put pressure on UEFA to impose stricter financial restraints on CL teams—which have a salary cap-like effect of tamping down on transfer fees and player wages—and push for larger slices of guaranteed tournament revenue. The Super League was a drastic attempt to move in this direction by cutting UEFA out of the deal entirely. The German giants are taking a slightly more cordial approach. Given how swiftly and fearfully UEFA acted against the Super Leaguers, while also green-lighting the new Champions League format, you can tell they feel penned in. They know the nuclear option is more firmly on the table than it’s ever been.
So the Real Madrids and Manchesters Uniteds of the world—the Bayerns and Dortmunds too—have gotten at least some of what they want, and UEFA have given some ground. When the two sides clash again five or ten years from now Real Madrid and Manchester United will have more power than they do now. More power to consolidate more power. This is sports; it ultimately doesn’t matter all that much, even if it does suck. But the people who own sports teams own other stuff too: oil and gas, media and communications companies, real estate development outfits, car manufacturers, tech firms. They make the world what it is, on a grand scale. And at the street level we do too but our influence, when we don’t bind together in large numbers, is woefully limited.
The big clubs were wrong about the current feasibility of the Super League, but a defeat on that front isn’t the same thing as a total loss. In fact, losing in any meaningful sense is basically impossible for companies of that size, men of obscene wealth and ambition. Everything is getting more like they’d like it to be all the time. The small victories, successful efforts to forestall that grim process of homogenization, are worth celebrating. It’s just depressing to know what’s coming, like walking around a city looking at all the pretty old buildings that have survived decades of rain and wind and heat, people pacing their floors and holding up their walls, trying to figure out how to live inside them, and wondering how many will last because there’s money in tearing them down.