12 major European Clubs were going to form their own "super-league". It crashed and burned. An exploration of the reasons behind creation of the League and more.
The world of football just went through a tumultuous week as the plans for the European Super League (ESL) was announced by Twelve Clubs. As fast as the new breakaway continental club football was announced (April18), it fell into pieces (April 21). The now-dead European Super League provides a fascinating insight into the deep and pervasive problems of the beautiful game.
In many ways, the Super League would have been an elixir that could have potentially ‘saved’ the sport, in other ways, it would have irrefutably caused its death. But before I move on, some basic context is necessary for the football illiterate.
Some of the largest football clubs in the world have long been agitated over the structure of the UEFA Champions League (UCL), the primary continental competition for football clubs in Europe. The basic issue that these big clubs are agitated about is that they are not able to reap the full benefits of the financial potential of the Champions League. These clubs attract the major eyeballs and therefore the greatest amount of revenue. Yet according to these big clubs, the UCL is a warped system the brings disproportionately smaller benefits to them. This, combined with smaller teams having their day in the sunlight over comparatively better teams from the Big Five Leagues (Spain, England, Italy, Germany and France) not qualifying for the competition has soured the Champions League in the eyes of these big clubs.
The UCL has a limited number of spots (32 as of now) which are filled based on the prominence of each nation’s league in a relative scale. Considering the extremely competitive nature of certain leagues, some prominent teams (such as the Big 15) miss out from the competition while less prominent teams from other nations still make the competition.
It is in this context that the ESL should be analyzed. These plans have allegedly been in the works for a long time, but the real kick that gifted us the Super League is the Wuhan virus. The pandemic has completely disrupted the world economy, but it also has shaken up the very core of football. Most of the matchday revenue of the clubs evaporated overnight. This combined with the overall downturn in the world economy meant that many football clubs are feeling the pinch. The extraordinary costs of running a football club in the modern day include an ever more burdensome wage bill, hyperinflated transfer fees to name a few. There is a lot of money to be made in the football industry, but there is a lot of costs too. With the pandemic doing away with a significant chunk of revenue, the clubs are facing the impending doom that many saw only in the future.
That these big clubs came together to create the “European Super League” is not particularly surprising. That the ESL would provide them with an assured starting sport, greater autonomy and most importantly, a greater share of the revenue generated is too sweet a deal.
Just to illustrate, the UEFA Champions League generated $2.37 billion in media rights in 2018-19. In comparison the Super League was underwritten by J.P. Morgan with around a $4 billion in media rights with clubs supposedly set to receive a $240 - $360 million “signing bonus” each.
This for a business is way too much money it is leaving on the table to stay within the rules and obey the diktats of sport bureaucrats. The money earned by a club that actually wins the Champions League in a given season would be roughly around $120 million. This amount of revenue would easily be available to every club every season via the Super League regardless of their performance. Moreover, the clubs would have had significant amount of autonomy in the conduct and regulations of the league and would not be dictated by the UEFA.
The problem with the ESL
All of this sounds like a pretty great deal for the clubs, so why exactly did the Super League crash and burn? Obviously, the UEFA and FIFA were outraged beyond measure. The real opposition was the fans of these clubs worldwide who were outraged at what they viewed as a money grab that would also endanger the spirit of the game and degrade the quality of football.
These fears are motivated by the greatest flaws in the ESL plan: the permanent status of the founding members of the League. The twenty-member league would have had 15 permanent members  who could not be relegated and another five clubs that would have qualified through some process. None of the Big 15 would have been relegated from the league. They would have continued on with a guaranteed starting spot every single season. That is quite a mouthwatering offer for clubs, especially A.C. Milan and Inter Milan, the two Italian teams that have found themselves in the sidelines at various points in the past decade. The English Premier League (EPL) clubs such as Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal, whose inconsistent performances have seen them drop out of qualifying for the Champions League Qualifications spots would be thrilled too.
This sort of “locked-in” position in Football is quite unknown in this sport. This has a lot to do with the origin of the game and the nature of the sport. Considering the shorter time span (compared to say cricket) and frequency of matches, the game developed on the basis of clubs based on cup competitions and later on leagues. These leagues eventually unified in a tiered system in which the worst performing clubs are relegated to lower leagues while better performing clubs are promoted. This essentially allowed the creation of a ‘perform or perish’ incentive for clubs. Thus, leagues were able to maintain a common standard of football.
Promotion/Relegation systems in Football have merit
Incredible feats have been achieved in the league system such as when Nottingham Forest F.C., a relatively unknown club brought to prominence by the great Brian Clough winning promotion from the second division (1976-77) and winning the First Division title in the English League the next year (1977-78). Clough also led the team to back-to-back wins of the European Cup (which is now the UCL) in ‘79 and ‘80. Even in recent history, we have had the incredible feat of Leicester City F.C. winning the EPL out of the blue in 2015-16, delighting almost all football fans. These sorts of feats make league football in many ways ‘make’ the sport since not everything is reliant on finance and prominence. “Anything can happen on the field” is a truism.
Sports are at the core of the being not merely about enjoyment and exercise but also of merit and competitiveness. Would creating a lethargic system of ‘locked in’ teams be within the spirit of sport, and specifically of football? The answer seems to be no, judging by the reaction of fans.
The Reformed Champions League
The UEFA Champions League is technically not a league competition, but starts with a Group Stage that then has knockout stages. But, the allocation of teams ensures a very high standard of competition. However, it also includes minnows whose position in the top 32 of European Clubs are more than doubtful. This is because the standard of the game is higher in Big Five leagues than in the rest of Europe as earlier mentioned.
UEFA, the administrative body of football that controls the sport in Europe has proposed changes to the Champions League to accommodate four more clubs and adopt a league competition where each time plays ten matches. The allocation of additional slots for this modified Champions League, set to being in 2024-25, is where things get interesting. Two of these allocations are being made to clubs with high club coefficients (essentially clubs that have performed well in UEFA competitions in the past five seasons) but have not qualified for Champions League qualify for the league. This means that even if a prominent team does not secure qualification by finishing within the top four of a league it can secure a position with a high enough coefficient. This benefits the established teams of Europe, and particularly the members of the big five. This was the carrot that was dangled in front of the Big Clubs in order to dissuade them from forming their own league. Suffice to say, that was clearly not enough.
There is no simple answer.
The question of “Super League v. Champions League” is not as simple as many fans frame it however. The UCL is not without its glaring flaws, some of which I’ve already mentioned. But more importantly, the UEFA as an organization has long been mired under corruption allegations and one need not even mention how corrupt FIFA has been. The football bureaucracy, like all bureaucracies, are hated.
On the other hand, it is the greed of clubs and more importantly club owners that are the driving force behind the creation of the league. It is true that the revenue generated by the ESL will help in stabilizing many a club, but the out-of-control situation with respect to salaries and transfer fees are the making of the clubs themselves, partially. It is also true that due to the unprecedented amount of money flowing into football primarily from the Persian Gulf nations, some clubs and wider football’s financial problems have been aggravated. The point is that the Super League has its benefits to the clubs that cannot be ignored.
Retrofitting a franchisee model
In many ways, the proposed creation of the European Super League is the attempt at adapting the game into a 21st century sports model such as the Indian Premier League (IPL) or the National Football League (NFL) in America. This system is based on a franchisee model with a closed league, built retro fitting a closed league in an open league system is unlikely to have gone down well. As stated earlier, football has a long and varied history that prevents great and drastic changes.
The revenue generation capabilities are quite significant for a closed league; it guarantees a certain amount of value to every franchise owner. The ability for such a league to generate broadcast revenue and ticket prices (post-COVID) would be higher than that of an open league. It is also argued, especially in the American context, that having a closed league would provide much more even competition among the teams than the one-sided routs that prominent teams impose on recently promoted minnows. This does not however seem to hold up to broader research scrutiny, (as I would argue that common sense dictates) that the promotion-relegation system improves the quality of play and incentivizes team to recruit and promote player talent.
Whatever the case maybe, the fan outrage has driven the plans to a virtual standstill. While the justification of Florentino Perez, the Real Madrid Chairman on the need for league (based on falling interest of youth in football (??)) does not make sense, the financial argument, especially for a club like F.C. Barcelona that is reeling in a debt crisis. The absolutely botched rollout of the Super League is definitely a study in how not to undertake reforms, but the underlying reasons for the creation of the league have not been solved.
The UEFA and FIFA’s track record as mentioned earlier is more than specious. Paris Saint-Germain, one of the clubs invited to the ESL that refused to join did some grandstanding on the issue with their rejection of the invitation. The truth is that PSG under its Qatari owners cannot afford to fall foul of the UEFA and FIFA that has been its supporters in hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup there. And for his commitment, the PSG Chairman Nasser Al-Khelaifi has been given an executive post in European Club Association. (The ECA is the body that represents clubs within the UEFA.) These connections are not particularly hard to make.
The Super League is now effectively dead considering that all but Barcelona and Real Madrid have pulled out, and in Barca’s case, the decision will be made by the members of the club who are likely to reject it. The reaction of every single stakeholder in the game was overwhelmingly negative.
The lack of promotion/relegation in the ESL is its greatest sticking point and the only reason I personally am not in favour of; otherwise, it is as L'Equipe, the French newspaper pointed out: “The war of the rich”.
The fans are honestly bystanders.
It is money v. money, but it is more importantly and more accurately described as money+ corruption v. money + greed. There is no single answer to this conundrum and we most likely witness another attempt in the coming decade or so to create a rival European League.
For now, honestly, let’s enjoy the beautiful game and stay safe.
Note: My thoughts are arguably summed up in a more explicit manner here:
Maxi on Twitter: "Milan ultras, Curva Sud, with a powerful message: “Football did belong to the people until the 90s, when Champions League was born, destroying the old European Cup. From that moment, an unbreachable chasm has been created between the big and small clubs" (Cred @footballitalia)" / Twitter
Since we can refer to each variant by their place of origin (UK Variant, Indian Variant, South African Variant etc.,) I think it is more than fair to call COVID-19 the ‘Chinese Virus’ or the ‘Wuhan Virus’.
The amount earned by a club during the Champions League actually varies not solely based on performance but also based on the ‘market pool’ in each club’s home country, determined by the TV market in the country.
Only Twelve teams signed up for the League, with PSG, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund opting to stay out and condemn the league when it was announced.
Sorry Arsenal fans. or Spurs fans, if they exist.
Not including the playoff stages.
The IPL in this regard should be an interesting study since it has a rather unique auction system that I believe promotes talent retention. It also has cultivated a great amount of talent that has starred for India as well.