Although it had been hinted at for years, Monday’s announcement of formal plans to launch the European Super League hit the world football scene like an atomic bomb. Let’s take a closer look at what the ESL is, and what it could mean for English and continental football.
What Is the Super League?
The ESL would be a new competition in which the biggest clubs in European football would play mid-week games in their own exclusive league, leaving weekends available for participation in the clubs’ domestic leagues. Fifteen clubs would be permanent members (ie, they could not be relegated regardless of end-of-season table position), with five more spots filled each year by qualifying teams invited to play in. The particulars of how the five non-permanent slots would be filled each year have not yet been elucidated.
So far, twelve current titans of European football have signed on to participate. They include all of the Premier League’s “Big Six” (Man City, Man United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal, and Tottenham), as well as Spain’s Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Atletico Madrid plus Italy’s Juventus, Internazionale Milan and AC Milan. A parallel women’s Super League is also planned.
Why A Super League?
In a word, money. Under the current model, the world’s marquee clubs must share domestic league broadcast revenue with every other team in the league, including the lower market-share clubs who are newly-promoted or perennially in the lower half of the table. These lower-profile clubs are seen as a drain on the profits of the giants, because they do not significantly enhance the value of the league’s broadcast rights but do claim a share of the revenue those rights generate.
Constructing a league of the most elite teams in Europe would bring together all of their massive worldwide fan-bases under a single roof. You can imagine the value of those broadcast rights, and so can the owners of the Super League’s founding teams.
At this point you might be wondering how this is any different from the Champions League, which is currently the tournament for Europe’s best teams. The answer is two-fold:
First, the market for the Super League would be even larger than the market for the Champions League, since every single fixture of the ESL schedule would be epic. The broadcast rights for the ESL are projected to be so lucrative that the league is guaranteeing each founding member a start-up payment of about $400M. To put that into perspective, Bayern Munich took home about $100M for winning the 2020 Champions League tournament.
Second, participation in the Champions League requires teams to qualify by finishing high enough in their domestic leagues. Involvement in the UCL is not guaranteed; it must be earned. By contrast, the founding Super League clubs would be members in perpetuity — there will be no need to qualify each season and therefore no risk of falling off the gravy train (see ramifications below).
The world’s major clubs spend huge amounts of money on wages and transfer fees in order to remain competitive, and many have recently undergone massive stadium and infrastructure projects. Coupled with a COVID pandemic that dented revenue by disrupting fixtures and virtually eliminating spectators, these factors have combined to place many prestigious clubs deeply into debt. For example, Juventus currently sits £334M in the red, Man United £453M, Tottenham nearly £600M, and Real Madrid an eye-popping figure of almost £1 billion. Given the (short-term) no-risk, high-reward proposal of ESL membership, it’s not hard to understand why the idea appeals to the owners of many of Europe’s biggest football clubs.
What Are The Ramifications?
The ESL would dramatically transform the face of European football, with massive consequences for domestic leagues, European tournaments, players, and fans.
ESL club owners intend to continue to participate in their domestic league competitions, planning ESL fixtures for mid-week in order to facilitate domestic league play on weekends. Although not nearly as lucrative as the ESL, domestic leagues still offer broadcast revenue as well as opportunities for sales of tickets and concessions. Why would owners want to walk away from those income streams?
However, Europe’s domestic leagues worry that their marquee clubs would preoccupy themselves with their weekly Super League clash-of-the-titans matches, potentially using domestic play as opportunities to rest and rotate, or to develop lesser players. They obviously don’t want elite clubs prioritizing the ESL over them. Should the elites consistently field depleted squads for their domestic games, the value of the leagues’ broadcast rights would decrease and ticket demand for these matches would decline. In England this would choke off support for football’s traditional organizational structure, threatening the very survival of the smaller clubs who depend on trickle-down money from the tiers above them in the pyramid.
The formation of the ESL would gut UEFA’s major European tournaments just at the very moment UEFA is preparing to revamp and expand them to make them more lucrative and appealing to the larger clubs. With ESL fixtures planned for mid-week, it’s possible that they would directly conflict with the Champions League schedule, preventing ESL clubs from participating the UCL. The absence of Europe’s most elite clubs from UEFA’s most important tournament would eviscerate the prestige of that competition.
Even if ESL fixtures could be arranged to accommodate the UCL (or vice versa), the allure of the Champions League Trophy as the Holy Grail of European football would be tarnished, with obvious implications for the value of the broadcast rights and ticket prices. We would see the same dynamic with the Europa League, Europe’s second-tier tournament. In total, then, hundreds of clubs of all sizes across all of Europe would suffer the effects of the ESL on UEFA’s tournaments.
Unsurprisingly, UEFA and the governing bodies of Europe’s domestic leagues are vehemently opposed to the ESL. The wholesale movement of Europe’s biggest clubs into their own exclusive league, with billions of dollars following along, represents a grave existential threat.
Official reaction has been swift and serious; domestic leagues are threatening to expel teams who join the ESL, and UEFA is threatening to ban them from its tournaments — even the ones currently under way! Further, FIFA has promised to bar ESL clubs’ players from participating on their national teams, precluding them from tournaments such as the World Cup and the Olympics. Said UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin “For some, supporters have become consumers, fans have become customers and competitions have become products. Selfishness is replacing solidarity. Money has become more important than glory, greed more important than loyalty, and dividends more important than passion.”
Even managers and players have begun to speak out. When asked about the ESL, Pep Guardiola said “It’s not sport if the relationship between effort and reward doesn’t exist. It’s not sport if it doesn’t matter if you lose.” Marcelo Bielsa said “It doesn’t surprise me. In all walks of life, the powerful look after their own backs and don’t worry about the rest of us. They make the big earnings because of the opposition of the other teams. But in search of higher economic gains, they forget about us”. Ralph Hassenhüttl said “For me it’s absolutely unacceptable what is going on behind the scenes. Nobody wants it –- not even the fans of the clubs who want to go there want it.”
And Hassenhüttl appears to be quite right about that. Fan organizations have revolted against their clubs’ plans. Groups from Liverpool, Chelsea, and Tottenham have already met with representatives of the British government. Liverpool supporters’ groups have demanded that their flags and banners be removed from the stadium immediately, and already a sign reading “Shame on you. RIP LFC 1892-2021” was hung outside. The Tottenham Hotspur Supporters’ Trust said in a statement “Yesterday, the current board of (Tottenham) betrayed the club, its history and the magic that makes this game so special when they put their name to a statement announcing the formation of a breakaway European Super League.”
Perhaps Paris Saint-Germain midfielder Ander Herrera (formerly of Manchester United) summed it up best when he posted the following on social media:
“I fell in love with popular football, with the football of the fans, with the dream of seeing the team of my heart compete against the greatest. If this European Super League advances, those dreams are over, the illusions of the fans of the teams that are not giants of being able to win on the field competing in the best competitions will end. I love football and I cannot remain silent about this. I believe in an improved Champions League, but not in the rich stealing what the people created, which is nothing other than the most beautiful sport on the planet.”
The ESL situation continues to evolve, and much remains uncertain. UEFA has already backed away from its initial statement that it would ban ESL teams from the current Champions League and Europa League competitions. And PSG and Bayern Munich have just released statements declaring their opposition to the ESL. That means that the Super League — supposedly comprised of the Goliaths of European football — could be missing last season’s Champions League winners as well as the team they defeated in the final.
Political pressure is now mounting, with French president Emmanuel Macron applauding PSG’s decision to remain loyal to Ligue 1, the leader of Italy’s Democratic party calling the ESL “nonsense,” and the leader of Italy’s right-wing party saying on Twitter “Soccer and sports belong to everyone, not to the privileged few.” In England, Prince William, President of the English FA, tweeted: “Now, more than ever, we must protect the entire football community — from the top level to the grassroots — and the values of competition and fairness at its core.” Boris Johnson was somewhat less diplomatic, pledging to “drop a legislative bomb” to stop the ESL.
With control of domestic and international football — not to mention immense sums of money — hanging in the balance, the battle over the European Super League is bound to end up in the courts, with each side suing the other in a desperate attempt to prevail. No matter who wins, English football will suffer a loss. The crass motives of the “dirty dozen” have shattered the romantic notions at the core of the sport to reveal the cynical truth behind the veil.
Data and quotes for this article sourced from cbssports.com, nytimes.com, espn.com, bbc.com, scroll.in, si.com, theguardian,com, and usatoday.com.
Do the big clubs owe allegiance (and revenue) to the FA, FIFA, UEFA etc and the minnows supported thereby? Or are those organizations a tyrannical old guard using entrenched position to parasitize the investments of others? Should Europe’s football clubs emulate America’s permanent league membership? Or would America’s (e.g. MLB) benefit from relegation and promotion? Please vote in our poll and then tell us what you think. Post your rant in the comments below!
Should Europe’s elite football clubs form a Super League?
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