Clubs, capes, and cowls: The European Super League, part I

People have recognized that there’s a stratified system to European football for some time now. It’s evident in phrases like the “Big 6” for the Premier League, made up of Liverpool, Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea, and Tottenham. It’s even more dramatic in nations like Spain, where only two teams tend to dominate the game, or Germany, France, and Italy, where it’s pretty much just one that does, in recent years. That situation has introduced speculation for a continental league- a European Super League -that would match up that “upper crust” of clubs so that they’d play each other more often than is currently the case in the Champions League, if not exclusively, forgoing any domestic participation. The motivation, as always, is the much greater broadcast revenue that a regular slate of Juventus vs Bayern and ManU vs Barcelona would produce. (As with most things: It’s about the money. It’s always about the money.) But there are other ideas circulating around the creation of such a league and a mindset that’s been imported that would change basic aspects of the sport, like promotion and relegation, that would mean a lot more than simply the big guns getting to knock heads with each other, rather than their respective national small fry. Given recent events (Project: Big Picture, etc.), I thought it might be worthwhile to look at the motivation for the idea and the reasoning behind it, as well as what the impact might be for football as a whole.

The root of the idea begins in the most unlikely of football nations: the United States. The US stands almost alone in the world in that not only is it a place where football isn’t even close to being the most popular sport, but it’s also where professional sport has long been mostly about making more money for already very wealthy people. The aphorism in Europe has long been: “No one gets into football if they want to make money.” It’s been about winning, about glory, about club fandom, and about being a hero in one’s local community. If you bought the local football club because you owned the biggest chain of butcher shops in town, you didn’t do it because you expected to make a career switch to football mogul. You did it because you were a hardcore fan of Local FC and you’d be the Man About Town if you managed to lead them to an FA Cup or something similar. The most recent example of this is from the early 90s, when Jack Walker bought Blackburn Rovers and poured what at the time was a ridiculous amount of money into them until they claimed a Premier League title in 1995. But he also couldn’t sustain the level of spending required, nor could the club maintain its status after his death, and they were subsequently relegated and have dropped as far as League One.

But in the US, pro sports has almost always been about the same thing that most things are about in this country: making money. To that end, the concept of performing so poorly that one might be dropped out of the top league (i.e. relegation) has never been in the cards. Once you’re a member of the NFL/MLB/NBA/NHL, you can deliberately tank a season (Philadelphia 76ers) or sell off most of your championship team (Miami Marlins) or be utterly incompetent for half a century (Detroit Lions) and still not suffer the consequences that even many other major corporations would suffer (e.g. bankruptcy.) Pro sports in the US is socialism for the wealthy. Indeed, it’s part of the NFL’s identity that even smaller market (Pittsburgh Steelers) or poorly-supported (Arizona Cardinals, for much of their history) teams will benefit from the success of everyone else in the league. The upside of that is that the financial parity frequently creates competitive parity, such that teams can rise and fall with some regularity and new champions emerge fairly often. The downside are cases like the Lions, where mismanagement still means making money, hand over fist, and a fan base that suffers with the end product and little hope of change (Think: Newcastle United.)

But the key aspect there is the stability for people that are already rich. There’s no risk in becoming an NBA owner because you will always be an NBA owner until you decide to sell the team. The risk for Premier League owners is that they may do poorly enough that they get relegated from the top division and fall to where the money isn’t nearly as plentiful. That means profits fall, which is a distinctly unAmerican concept in terms of professional sports. This is what was on the mind of the “Big 5” of the English top division back in the late 80s. Liverpool, Everton, ManU, Arsenal, and Tottenham realized that they could be making a lot more money from TV revenues that would eventually dwarf what they were making from selling tickets at the door. But they couldn’t get the other 72 clubs of the English Football League to go along with changes to the way games were scheduled because many of them were living in a different world from the likes of LFC and Arsenal, even then, to say nothing of the drastic difference now. So, the Big 5 basically conspired with the FA to recreate the top division as a separate entity, the Premier League, where decisions about game times and broadcast access would be controlled by the clubs who were in the top division; much like the NFL and other American sports leagues. This was the beginning.

Eventually, the TV money became so huge and the fanbases of the most successful clubs in the top division became so widespread that there emerged a division within the special division; such that not only were PL clubs living in a different world from the EFL, but the “Big 6” clubs of the PL were eventually swimming in separate waters from the Other 14, too. This is the sporting concern that drives thoughts of the Super League: Is there a point to running the same competition over and over when the winners will always be the same group of clubs? Well, let’s take a look at the history and see how dire the state of affairs is across Europe.

One of these does not belong…

The Premier League. This is the best situation among the top 5 leagues of Europe, in that there are actually six clubs with a reasonable claim on the top spot and one of the most hotly-contested struggles in Europe is for those four automatic qualifier spots to the Champions League (where, again, it’s about the money.) Most fans of the “Big 6” tend to mollify themselves when admitting that they won’t win the title with the statement: “But as long as we finish top 4…” In the last 30 years, only three times has the English champion come from outside the Big 6: Leeds United in 1991-92, Blackburn Rovers in 1994-95, and Leicester City in 2015-16. Interestingly, one of the “Big 6”, Tottenham, hasn’t won a top division title since 1961 and have won only twice in their entire history, but are still considered part of that elite group, distinct from the “regular” top division members. The argument in favor of this situation is only in comparison to the other major leagues, in that at least there are six teams contending for the title, as opposed to far fewer elsewhere in Europe. Still the chasm in the league is clearly between those teams competing in Europe (the CL and Europa League) and those who aren’t, as became so obvious in the vote over increased substitutions this season, which we’ll touch on later.

La Liga/Primera Division. In the past 30 years, only five times has a team not named “Barcelona” or “Real Madrid” won the Spanish title: Atletico Madrid in 1990-91 and 2013-14, Deportivo La Coruña in 1999-2000, and Valencia in 2001-02 and 2003-04. In the 89 years that Spanish football has declared a champion, Barca and Real Madrid have won 60 of them, with Atleti winning another 10. The problem in Spain was long exacerbated by the fact that all of the clubs negotiated their own broadcast deals, with the bulk of the money going to the two most popular clubs. That’s been recently altered by regulation, but the TV cash is still nowhere near the rough equality of the Premier League. That also may be an explanatory factor in why the overall rights for the league are less than what the PL can bring in, since the lack of real competition in La Liga is evident. Fans of the big two argue that there are still good teams in the rest of the league and the “competition” is based on Barca and Real superseding each other if they slip up against the “Other 18.”

Serie A. In the 80s, the Italian league was dominated by what the press referred to as the Seven Sisters: Juventus, Milan, Internazionale, Roma, Lazio, Fiorentina, and Parma. Indeed, only once in the last 30 years has a winner come from outside that group: Samdoria in 1990-91. But the problem has become more acute in that there have really only been Three Sisters for much of the past two decades: Juve and the two Milans, with only two winners in the last 30 years apart from those three (Lazio in 1999-00 and Roma in 2000-01.) And, in all honestly, only one in recent times, as Juventus has won the last nine straight titles. With both of the Milanese clubs having run into a variety of financial issues, there’s been no check on what has traditionally been the strongest club in Italy (Juve has more than twice the titles of either Milan and at least five times as many as any other competitor.) The last title was the closest of any of the nine and the Old Lady hasn’t started this season in top form, but it shouldn’t take a decade of sheer dominance to come to the conclusion that something needs to change.

The Bundesliga. Similarly, Bayern Munich’s utter dominance of the German league, both recently (winners of the last eight) and historically (30 titles, more than three times any other club, with the closest being Nürnberg (currently in Bundesliga.2) at 9), is enough to make one question the point of it all. Interestingly, if we use the “last 30 years” comparison that we looked at with the previous three leagues, the Bundesliga appears more competitive with Borussia Dortmund (5), Werder Bremen (2), VfB Stuttgart (2), 1. FC Kaiserslautern (2), and VfL Wolfsburg (1) all winning titles in that period. That, of course, means that the other 18(!) were won by Bayern, so perhaps not as exciting as it may first appear. And, again, the outright control exhibited over the past decade and which doesn’t appear to be dissipating anytime soon, certainly raises the issues of both competition and overall entertainment. Germany’s strict rules on ownership (the famous “50 +1” rule that requires majority ownership by the club’s members) create an extra layer of calcification on change in that league, which means it’s even less likely for new funding sources to create a challenge to the top club (although RB Leipzig’s neat evasion of that famous rule may put the lie to that speculation.)

Ligue 1. Similarly, the French league also looks more competitive under the “30 years” test. Paris-St. Germain has won 8 of their 9 titles in that period, including 7 of the last 8. But there was also a stretch of 7 in a row by Lyon in the 00s, as well as wins by traditional powerhouse Marseille (2), Nantes (2), Monaco (3), Auxerre (1), Bordeaux (2), Lens (1), Lille (1), and Montpellier (1.) However, since their purchase by Qatar, the financial superiority of PSG over the rest of the league has been so overwhelming that the likelihood of their dominance being challenged is remote indeed. Just using the most obvious example: No other club in France would even dream of shelling out almost a quarter billion Euros for one player the way PSG did when they bought Neymar. The introduction of Qatar Sports Investments has reduced Ligue 1 to the same situation that the German and Italian leagues currently reside in, but it feels like the possibility of change is even less likely.

Also, this is not a phenomenon that is unique to the top 5 leagues. Benfica, Porto, and Sporting have won 84 of the 86 Primeira Liga titles in Portugal. Since the formation of an independent Ukrainian league in 1992, Dynamo Kyiv and Shakhtar Donetsk have won 28 of the 29 titles (all but the first; Tavriya Simferopol.) There are always “big clubs” in any national league. The difference in this context is two-fold: 1. In most of those leagues, only one or two clubs are actually big. 2. The big clubs in the top 5 leagues are also usually the only contenders for the Champions League title which is, again, where the real money is for a lot of leagues outside the PL. Of the 60 teams participating in the final for the last 30 years, only 11 did not come from the aforementioned “elite” level (Two of those were winners in Red Star Belgrade and Porto and two more were Ajax sides and that club has something of a history in European play, to put it mildly.) In the last 15 years, no final participant has come from outside the select group at the pinnacle of the top 5 leagues; albeit with a couple more marginal members in Atleti and Dortmund. Clearly, there is a gap here, both domestically and internationally. That gap, of course, is only reinforced by the constant inflow of cash, both from finishing higher in their respective domestic leagues and for participating in the Champions League and those positions atop those leagues will only solidify as time goes on, as a result.

That lack of competition in domestic leagues is why nations other than England are having more trouble selling their broadcast rights these days. The Ligue 1 broadcaster just backed out of a payment and the Bundesliga had to sign for 5% less than their previous contract. No one is particularly interested in seeing Bayern slaughter Hertha Berlin for the 20th match in a row. But, if there’s less money coming in from domestic rights, that makes the Champions League spots even more valuable, as you’ll be getting more money for… playing other European teams that are closer to your level. Would it be wiser to just cut to the chase and do that on the regular? The counter-argument for this topic is presented by a lot of PL clubs that aren’t in the “Big 6”, who claim that the reason that the PL rights are so valuable is because of the level of competition that shows Aston Villa can roll out one day and beat the defending champions, 7-2. And there is some truth to that. The PL is generally considered one of the more difficult of the top leagues; a topic Spanish fans would argue and try to reinforce with their “the competition is not slipping up even once against the lesser sides” claim. But, in the end, no one expects the Villans to win the PL or even contend for the CL spots and 27 winners out of the past 30 lends weight to that expectation. And if CL spots are more valuable, then the rights for a Super League, with the “biggest” clubs in Europe regularly competing, would be even greater. As always, it’s about the money. It’s always about the money.

That’s the competitive (and financial) argument for the ESL. But we can go back to the formation of the Premier League and recent troubles within the PL to see another motivation. The NFL has made an example of spreading the wealth around for its members. Even when not everyone contributes equally to the pie (real TV ratings for the Jacksonville Jaguars, as opposed to the New England Patriots, for example), everyone shares mostly equally in the pie. This keeps everyone on the same page and the members rarely have contested votes. Everyone knows what’s good for everyone else in their exclusive club and they just do what needs to be done. It’s similar to a story about Nebraska joining the Big 10 back in the day, where conference commissioner, Jim Delany, laughed at stories about how difficult meetings and votes were in the Big 12 for the Cornhuskers. The Big 10 really didn’t “vote” on anything, as everyone knew what would keep the money train rolling for everyone. English football… is not that way.

As I mentioned, the Premier League and the lower divisions are worlds apart, financially and otherwise. But the chasm between the Big 6 and the Other 14 is almost equally wide and discussions about how money from, say, European competitions is divided have been the centerpiece of recent arguments; with the Big 6 saying that, since they’re doing all the work, they should be getting a larger share of the money. The PL has been agreeing to that because many smaller club owners are likely imagining that when they make the Euro spots, they’ll also want the money that they’re generating. (This is akin to the devotion of many conservative voters to the idea that no restraints should be placed on millionaires in our society because when THEY become millionaires, they won’t want those restraints, either.) Part of what drives that dissension is the system of pro/rel. Everyone in the PL knows that 3 clubs are going down at the end of the season and the sole focus is to not be one of them, because it may be a very long time before you return (see: Leeds United.) An ESL as currently speculated would do away with that threat, keeping everyone involved more focused on making the pie as rich as possible for all. But this division within the PL also extends itself to less reasonable decision-making, such as the five substitutions rule that I was ranting about last time. We’ve reached a point where the differences between the haves and the have-nots are leading to motivations based on pure self-interest, just like the friction in the late 80s, when Liverpool and Everton were tired of having their ambitions constrained by Port Vale and Grimsby Town. They’re simply not playing the same game and petty English tribalism is only accentuating that fact. In that respect, an ESL starts to seem almost logical…?

But let’s stop there for now. Next time, I’ll talk about what an ESL might look like, the potential effect on the players and the clubs “left behind”, the continuing cycle of competition that might not solve a lot of the problems the promoters are hoping it will, and whether closed shops are good for the fans.

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