In last week, only one news solely spanned the football news space- the formation of the European Super League. 12 elite clubs came together to form a high-profile closed league on April 18, 2021, with reportedly US$5.5 billion financial help from banking giant J. P. Morgan Chase. These clubs are Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, A.C. Milan, Inter Milan, Juventus and, six premier league biggies- Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal, and Chelsea.
This competition was expected to grow to 20 teams. This was also supposed to supersede the already existing UEFA Champions League.
To understand why the concept of another league on the top of the Champions League is not going anywhere, we have to understand why the Super League was formed in the first place.
Why European Super League was formed?
The simple answer is, the elites needed more money to run such big machinery. With the reducing number of ticket sales and revenue cuts caused by the pandemics, the only way to generate money is to increase TV viewership. Broadcasting income is the main driver and since the formation of the Premier League and the sale of the rights to Sky, new players such as BT and Amazon have entered the market, kicking up the value of the broadcasting rights. The big clubs want a larger share of this and other commercial income, arguing that it is their profile and popularity that attracts subscribers and viewers. This further increase when big clubs and big names play against each other frequently.
Being a closed one, the new league also ensures that all these clubs will play irrespective of the previous year’s performance which is not confirmed in Champions League. As an example, Arsenal is a big name in English football but Arsenal last played in the Champions League in the 2016/17 season.
Stefan Szymanski, Professor of Sport Management, University of Michigan writes “As an expert on sports management, co-author of the book “Soccernomics,” and someone who predicted the super league some 22 years ago, I can appreciate the benefit of more games. UEFA, the governing body for European soccer, was itself about to announce a revamped version of the Champions League with more games for the big clubs. It is, I believe, a reasonable response to the level of demand.”
Why a closed league such as IPL or Major League Soccer worked out but European Super League failed?
In the other parts of the world, such closed big money leagues are highly popular. Franchise models were mastered in the United States in the form of MLS in football, MLB in baseball, and NFL in American Football. The owners of the founding clubs tried to imitate that, as the prime influencers of the Super League may have been American owners of major franchises – the Glazer Family, which owns both Manchester United and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Arsenal and Colorado Avalanche owner Stan Kroenke, Boston Red Sox and Liverpool owner John Henry.
Notably, the success story of this model was cleanly mapped to the Indian subcontinent with the Indian Premier League or IPL in cricket. Though the corruption allegations and other criminal activities piled up in IPL with years, the fan base, money and domination over other cricket leagues in the world plummeted through years. The main reason is, prior to the IPL, Indian fans were focused to support Indian national team in international level. There was no regional fanbase with regional sentiment. IPL gave that chance to the fans. Also, with increasing glamour of cricket world made fans more and more hungry to consume. But European football already had most of these and Super League is a booster dose to that.
So, why did all these leagues achieve enormous success and Super League could not?
The answer lies in the design of the fabric of the field sports in Europe. The European football culture is fan-based. The game is as equally important and carrier of heritage and culture out of the stadium as it is inside. Small changes such as traditional jersey colour create havoc in the fan sentiment and the owners are often forced to reverse their decisions.
The process of promotion and relegation is what sets European football apart from most American team sports. Many current and former players have outraged by the decision. And their sentiments can be summed up by the statement given by former Arsenal and Real Madrid star Mesut Özil, who said “Kids grow up dreaming to win the World Cup and the Champions League – not any Super League.”
A super league where the biggest teams automatically took part will create collateral damage in which the small teams in the domestic leagues will suffer by weakened teams, meaningless fixtures, reduced attendance demands and many more.
Why is the idea not going to vanish magically?
Money and money only. The clubs such as Barcelona are under huge debt and desperately need the money. Either UEFA has to introduce a new league or there will be a closed league in some form or else to generate revenue for the large clubs. By taking the steps to form a break away league, these clubs have shown how desperate they are. As the club owners and the presidents are influential even in UEFA, it is inevitable, they will again try to do something similar in a different form. As interim Sheffield United boss Paul Heckingbottom says,
“Obviously if the owners of those clubs are really committed to doing something like they did, then it’s obviously going to be a topic of conversation all the time. They’re going to maybe be doing it a different way, but still looking to either overhaul the Champions League or create a new competition.”
This seems to be rational opinion about the future of the European football.