The controversy around the European Football Super League was shortlived: the protagonists announced their plan on a Sunday night, and it was ditched only 48 hours later. One unexpected event in the aftermath, however, was that Daniel Ek, Spotify’s founder and CEO, announced that he was teaming up with three star players in a bid to buy his beloved club, Arsenal.
It’s too early to tell if the plan will go through. But, successful or not, it sends a strong signal as to how far European tech has come... and where it’s heading.
From software to sport
First of all, owners of European football clubs tell a lot about the current zeitgeist. Back in the 1980s, owning a club was the distinctive accomplishment for the successful businessmen of the time, the likes of Bernard Tapie in France (who for a while owned the Olympique de Marseille) and media tycoon-turned-politician Silvio Berlusconi in Italy (long the owner of AC Milan, one of the clubs involved in the ill-fated Super League).
Owners of European football clubs tell a lot about the current zeitgeist.
These days, numerous tech personalities own sports teams in the US: most notably in the NBA, where Broadcast.com founder and Shark Tank investor Mark Cuban owns the Dallas Mavericks, and VC investor Chamath Palihapitiya owns a stake in the Golden State Warriors. But so far, we haven’t had sports team owners from the tech world in Europe.
Then again, who in European tech has that kind of fame, money and appetite for the limelight, anyway? There are many successful tech entrepreneurs on this side of the Atlantic, but very few have reached the level that makes owning a football club an option.
Some of the wealthiest European tech personalities, such as Wales-born Mike Moritz of Sequoia Capital and Germany-born Andy Bechtolsheim, a cofounder of Sun Microsystems, have made their fortunes in the US, where they still live. Others, such as Hasso Plattner, cofounder of SAP, or France’s Xavier Niel, haven’t displayed interest in owning a football club.
The ideal candidate
None of those, in any case, could claim the same level of combined fame, prestige and wealth that Ek enjoys across the pan-European startup world. One reason for Ek being taken seriously with such an announcement is the nature of the business he founded — music streaming platform Spotify — which has become a household name in every European country. Most Europeans, even if they haven’t heard of Daniel Ek the person, know about Spotify, and this kind of brand recognition correlates well with wanting to own a European football club as iconic as Arsenal.
Another reason why we had to wait for Ek for tech wealth to trickle into football is that he seems genuinely interested in Europe as a continent.
Last year, he announced that he would allocate a significant share of his wealth to Prima Materia, “a European investment company that builds, grows, and owns companies for the long term”. Successful European tech entrepreneurs are typically angel investors and limited partners in VC funds, but few of them have articulated an investment thesis that resonates at the continental level like Ek’s.
Indeed, the nature of the consortium formed by Ek reveals the pan-European dimension of the effort. Ek is Swedish, and to my knowledge not especially connected to England — where Arsenal is based. As for his business partners, they all used to play for Arsenal, but two are French (Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira) and the third, Dennis Bergkamp, is Dutch. What’s more European than a Swede partnering with personalities from France and the Netherlands to purchase a football club in North Islington, London?
What it means for tech
If the plan comes to fruition, there could be two interesting outcomes from a European tech perspective.
Young, ambitious Europeans... will perhaps wonder if they could become a billionaire football club owner, too, if they also got involved in tech.
The first is that we’ll reach the next level in terms of European startups offering role models to the younger generation. Even if everyone knows Spotify, few young, ambitious Europeans would pay attention to a tech CEO like Ek (except if they’re from the Nordics, of course). On the other hand, they might be pretty interested in the guy who now owns Arsenal, one of the most iconic clubs in European football. They will then start to pay attention to his background, what he’s built — and perhaps wonder if they could become a billionaire football club owner, too, if they also got involved in tech.
Another outcome would be that football finally takes its turn in embracing technology. There have already been several generations of founders thinking that, football being a popular sport, there might be opportunities to build new apps in this space. Yet to date not many have succeeded outside of gaming, because football is a business stuck in its ways — and mostly focused on deriving revenue from selling rights to television networks. In this context, our football overlords couldn’t care less about fans using new apps and the startups building them.
Maybe it will trigger a new wave of tech-driven innovation in football, with more tech-savvy managers taking over and new products deployed to nurture the club’s relationship with its fans.
But what if a tech personality such as Ek joins the overlords? Difficult to predict in advance, since he might be just a silent partner once Arsenal has been bought. But maybe it will trigger a new wave of tech-driven innovation in football, with more tech-savvy managers taking over and new products deployed to nurture the club’s relationship with its fans.
There could also be synergies with the content platform that is Spotify, which has recently expanded into podcasting and could become home to exclusive content related to football. The sport, after all, is a uniquely non-American discipline that remains relatively marginal in the US but is the most popular sport in many other parts of the world.
All in all, it shouldn’t be a surprise that football emerges as the new frontier for European tech, possibly giving rise to challenges that only European entrepreneurs like Ek can tackle!
Nicolas Colin is cofounder of VC firm The Family. He writes a regular column for Sifted.