On Sunday April 18th, 12 soccer clubs from England, Italy, and Spain announced the formation of a new “Super League.” In the 24 hours since the announcement, the entire Soccer world has lit torches and gathered their pitchforks and are prepared to expel the clubs, owners, and players from all other competitions should this Super League actually take place. The response to this has been extreme, going so far as UEFA threatening to expel the clubs from current tournaments and banning the players who participate from playing in the World Cup. On its surface the Super League seems like an obvious, yet inoffensive, money grab. No different than any other company trying to corner a market, so why the vitriol response? There’s a good bit to unpack.
What is it?
For the soccer ignorant reader I can provide a simple analogy (sports ignorant readers are SOL). This Super League has the makings of a reshuffling of College Football. Imagine if the top 5 teams from the SEC, top 3 from the Big 10, and top 2 from the Big 12 and Pac 12 all announced they would be forming their own annual tournament and would not share their proceeds within their respective conferences.
Currently, such a tournament exists but requires certain annual qualifications. For College Football, the playoff and large bowl games require teams to succeed within their own regular season. For European soccer, a team’s ranking from the previous season can qualify them for the Champions League or Europa League tournaments (which last the whole next season). In both scenarios, the clubs get large payouts for participating and some leagues/conferences trickle that cost down throughout all teams.
The Super League cuts out qualification entirely. There will be no penalty for a team not performing well in their own league and the teams invited to participate will be protected during their less dominant eras. For many fans and clubs, qualifying for one of the season’s tournaments is as high as they will ever experience. Making the Champions League is a major milestone. To create a tournament without such an important entry point, cheapens the entire event. Qualifying also provides a financial boom that can keep a team successful for years. Another aspect of European soccer the Super League threatens.
The founding clubs have announced an annual payout of $400 million for all participating clubs. This is surely predicated by future TV contracts and advertising budgets. Money that many fans and other clubs have noticed, wouldn’t come from new sources. It would tap directly into the current revenue stream that already trickles oh so slowly down the ranking order. Imagine what Kentucky would spend on its football team if it wasn’t profit sharing with the rest of the SEC’s bowl prizes and TV contracts. Should these clubs capture those revenue strains, what then becomes of their lesser counterparts in the domestic leagues?
Super League Drama
Well, those lesser clubs aren’t going down without a fight. The English Premier League is hosting a meeting amongst the 14 clubs not included in the Super League to determine next steps. Members of Britain’s Parliament have threatened to deny visas and prevent the 6 Super League clubs from signing foreign players, thereby hampering their ability to compete. In Spain, Atalanta defender Robin Gosens gave a passionate response to the new league, “People are still dying all over the world, and there’s not enough money. These twelve clubs are founding their own league and getting 100 or 150 million shoved up their asses. The sad thing is at the end of the day: it’s all about money, money, money.”
Gosens has a great point, it’s only about the money. The myth that these are Europe’s top teams is plainly ridiculous. Arsenal and Tottenham are currently well out of qualification for next year’s UEFA Champions and Europa League. Clubs like Ajax (Netherlands) and Porto (Portugal) have knocked a number of these clubs out of international tournaments over the past few years. German and French monster clubs Bayern Munich, BVB Dortmund, and Paris Saint-Germain have all stated they have no interest in participating in such a money grab. The founding clubs have great histories for sure, but they’ve got the big sponsorships, big fanbases, and the ability to draw the casual fan. It is all about the money.
And that is the only reason this whole thing might actually work. Nobody is excited about this Super League, but this did seem somewhat inevitable (though hilariously executed). The tight games between major clubs feel more and more rare, and it has been hurting viewership. Just because Dynamo Zagreb (Russia) knocked out Juventus in the Champions League doesn’t mean anyone watched, or would watch again. Much like in College Football, only diehard Alabama fans want to watch them destroy North Texas. If they lose, hysterical. But that’s a gamble no advertiser cares to make with their money.
The players may be punished and the powers that be may be able to fend the Super League off for a while, but it does feel that this may be more and more likely a permanent change to European Soccer. I have not even addressed the traditions and rivalries that are threatened, which will assuredly crush some fans. But, if American sports have shown anything, it’s that owners love a socialist system. The Promotion/Relegation system is too big a risk to invest hundreds of millions of dollars.