Ken Early: Never mind Euro 2020’s quality, feel the marketing
That fame trumps sporting excellence is good news for international tournaments
Skillzy, the Euro 2020 mascot, photographed in Rome ahead of tonight’s opening match between Italy and Turkey. Photograph: Claudio Villa/Getty Images
Did you watch Logan Paul v Floyd Mayweather? If not, you’re not exactly in the minority - but a lot of people out there did watch it. Nobody knows anyone who admits to having bought it, but reports suggest it sold close to a million pay-per-views and generated around $50 million.
That a fake fight between a retired boxer and a YouTube mouth could generate more PPV buys than any real fight this year was heartbreaking to real boxers such as the undisputed world super-lightweight champion Josh Taylor, who tweeted: “Why are these f**kwits jake & Logan Paul even being giving airtime on the boxing outlets. These guys are total clowns & as soon they go into a real fight, they gonna get hurt bad & it will reflect badly on the sport. Stop giving these turkeys the attention they so badly seek <facepalm emoji>”
On TalkSport he added: “I was a little bit surprised and kind of felt let down [that the Paul-Mayweather bout got more attention than Taylor’s own (real) title fight v Jose Ramires] . . . I kind of felt like in the build-up and the lack of TV picking it up, it kind of felt like no-one cared and no-one really gave a toss about it. It kind of cheesed me off a little bit and I was like, ‘Well, why am I not getting the recognition, but they’re talking about bloody Logan Paul and Floyd Mayweather?’”
The reason is that nobody except boxing fans has ever heard of Josh Taylor, while Logan Paul and Floyd Mayweather are extremely famous. In his old-fashioned way, Taylor expected recognition for the great athletic achievement of uniting the belts, but increasingly the top earners in boxing gain recognition first and only then set foot in the ring.
It appears that Paul made more money from eight fake rounds against Mayweather than Taylor has made in his whole 18-fight pro career to date. It turns out that when it comes to selling fights, sporting quality is almost totally irrelevant. It doesn’t matter to people whether a fight is technically good or even ‘real’ - many of them may not even be able to tell the difference. Outside a small core of serious fans, people decide whether to pay attention to sporting events depending on whether they care about who is involved. Never mind the quality, feel the storylines.
Celebrities like Conor McGregor and the Paul brothers have figured this out and hacked the sport of boxing, bypassing difficult and dangerous years of training and fighting their way into title contention, and skipping straight to the part where they collect tens of millions of PPV dollars. If it’s any consolation to all the hardworking and underappreciated Josh Taylors out there, the YouTubers of the future might still need pro boxers to provide the opposition in their fake fights.
Taylor might one day earn his biggest purse playing Mayweather to some new Logan Paul, if only he can get famous enough for future YouTubers to notice him.
That fame easily trumps sporting excellence is bad news for professional boxing, but good news for international football tournaments. The 11-city, 24-team cross-continental Euros are here, and everyone who’s been paying attention to recent tournaments knows what to expect: a month of largely disappointing football between undercooked teams of exhausted players who desperately need a holiday and are content to play for penalties.
Compared to the highest levels of the club game, the football at international tournaments is objectively awful. Luckily for Uefa and Fifa, objectivity has nothing to do with it.
That’s the magic of the Euros and the World Cup - the product may be inferior, but the marketing is undefeated. It doesn’t actually matter that the teams are mostly tired and mediocre. What matters is the names of the teams - they are called things like England, Scotland, Italy, France - bigger brands even than Logan Paul and Conor McGregor, the kind of names that guarantee eyeballs, independent of quality.
Until quite recently, people watched these tournaments expecting to see unfamiliar players do things they’d never seen before. Through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder: now that you can get pretty much any match around the world on your phone, the tournament magic has been stripped away.
Many of the big European match-ups have lost the frisson they had when large numbers of fans on either side could remember being at war with the opposition. In a rational world, international football - a throwback to the interwar age of nationalism, and an increasingly debased form of a sport which itself has probably peaked as a form of mass entertainment - might already be a relic.
So why do we keep watching? Maybe for some of the same reasons that nationalism itself has proven hardier than many expected in the heyday of globalisation a few years ago. In a world so volatile and chaotic that Logan Paul can be among the top-earning boxers of 2021, the idea of the nation feels relatively stable and reassuring.
Watching our national teams play in a major tournament is among the last mass-communal experiences we have, at least until Logan Paul adds another few hundred million subscribers.
Next to this precious and fleeting togetherness, football details seem almost beside the point. The tournaments used to be where great teams launched new football ideas into the world, where the evolutionary leaps in the game took place. Now that the top level of football is elsewhere, the tournaments have become pure carnival.
It’s all about giving your people something to shout about - and remember, most of the time your people will be watching and filming themselves rather than the game, so you better hope your good work shows up on the scoreboard, the only place your people are sure to notice it.
The realisation that international tournaments are no longer really about football has implications for how teams should approach them. Throughout the last World Cup, one of The Irish Times correspondents in Russia raged against the dullness of the French team. In his view they were a typical José Mourinho battle-pig of a team from 15 years ago, the type of solid, percentage-playing side that had long vanished from the latter stages of the Champions League.
With talent like Mbappé, Dembélé, Kanté, Griezmann and Pogba, surely they should be capable of better?
But Didier Deschamps understood something important about international football tournaments. He understood that tournament teams are like a great work of literature, in that the reader has to bring something to the table if the work is to be appreciated. The thing you had to bring to the table to truly appreciate Deschamps’ France was: you had to be French.
If foreigners wanted to pretend to care about whether France were getting the most out of their creative talents, that was their business. If you were French you cared about only one question: did we win? And Deschamps’s boring, powerful team was able to give the right answer.
Whoever wins these Euros is unlikely to thrill anyone except their own fans. Just as well they’re the only ones that matter.