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

The first thing to keep in mind about a potential ESL is this: It’s about the money. It’s always about the money. There are a bunch of other factors that we’ve touched on already (competition, more control of league rules, protection from relegation, etc.) but it’s mostly about the money. So, it behooves us to examine some of the finances involved to see just how much money would be necessary not only to pry most of the major clubs away from the Champions League, but potentially away from their respective domestic leagues. Doing so may also have significant legal challenges, not only in their respective nations, but within the laws of the European Union. Finally, there’s room to question what it would mean for players to suddenly be jetting across Europe on a weekly basis, as well as the ability of dedicated fans to do likewise.

How much money? Well, the Champions League currently generates about €2.8 billion among 32 participating clubs. If the ESL was intended to be simply a CL replacement in a semi-closed group (X number of permanent members, plus a few open slots for qualifiers), then it would be relatively easy to exceed that total, especially given that we’d be talking about splitting that €3 billion (or whatever) among 20 clubs, rather than 32. Howevah, if we’re talking about an ESL that would replace domestic leagues for the big clubs, then we’re talking about a pile of more cash. The Premier League generates roughly €6 billion alone. That figure is why there hasn’t been a greater drive from the top English clubs to change current circumstances. They’re already playing in (and dominating) the most lucrative football league in the world, behind only the NFL, MLB, and NBA in the amount they’re raking in. OTOH, it’s why there’s been a push from clubs like Juventus to create a Euro league, since they’ve long since recognized that the relative weakness of the Italian economy (and, uh, the relative weakness of the Serie A product, given Juve’s dominance) means that they’re unlikely to catch up to the economic power that clubs like ManU and Liverpool can wield and that the gap will only continue to grow. But finding broadcasters willing to shell out €9 billion is asking quite a bit, to say nothing of what ticket prices might end up being. One of the reasons that the NFL, et al make so much money is the exclusivity of their product. Season tickets for those leagues are already beyond the means of a significant chunk of the population. Euro football, often labeled the “peoples’ game”, is done so for many reasons. One of those reasons is the ability for Average Joe to roll up and see a game (not to mention the willingness and ability to push back if the club starts getting a little graspy.) Many of the clubs that would be regulars in an ESL are already becoming the province of the elite when it comes to ticket pricing. (Don’t think I’m not a little relieved that we’re the lowest of the Big 6 and even below the Hammers; a club originally formed by a bunch of metalworkers and shipbuilders.) That problem would only become worse in a league structure where, technically, every game is a “big game”.

But then there’s the legal side. The biggest hurdle to overcome in any kind of “closed” league would be EU law, since it considers those groupings to be a cartel and an inhibition to genuine competition… which is absolutely right. The NFL is the purest form of “socialism for the wealthy”, wherein even franchises as incompetent as the Detroit Lions are preserved from any kind of consequence of their actions (or inaction) by both the sharing of wealth (TV rights, merchandising, etc.) and the closed nature of the league. Even if they lost every game they played, the champion of a smaller league can’t rise up and replace them. That’s what promotion and relegation is supposed to prevent. Owners of clubs can’t simply ride the gravy train but have to actually try to succeed. A closed ESL would obviate that risk, which is why some of the bigger clubs (Arsenal…?) are interested in it. The traditional dodge for US sports leagues around the definition of cartel activity is that collaboration is necessary to agree on rules and uniformity of approach and blah, blah, blah. This is the same angle taken by people suggesting that a public health system in the US is impossible despite it working everywhere else in the world. Pro/rel still functions normally in European football leagues with codified rules that everyone agrees to.

The support for a closed league not only comes from owners trying to maximize their take and minimize their risk (i.e. greed) but also means that said league can make new rules inside its closed house; most importantly: a salary cap. Salary restrictions are what allow small market teams like the Kansas City Chiefs to compete with large market teams like the New York Giants. It also often prevents smaller clubs from spending themselves into oblivion, which was the nominal purpose for Financial Fair Play regulations in UEFA. But you don’t need a closed league in domestic play to institute regulations like a salary cap. League 1 and League 2 are currently functioning with one. But an ESL would cross national boundaries, which means your salary cap would have to be the same for Italian teams as it would for Spanish teams, which presents a problem in getting everyone to agree to such things, as Spanish clubs can currently pay more, on average, than Italian clubs can and wouldn’t want to be restricted to the lower level.

You can get around some of the cartel problem by adopting the Euroleague (basketball) model. The Euroleague is made up of 18 teams, 11 of which are long-term licensees of the league and whom sit on the shareholders board. Then there are five “associated clubs” with 1-year licenses, plus two 2-year “wild cards”, all of which are drawn from winners of a second-tier tournament (the EuroCup) and the winners of various domestic leagues that are ranked based on participation in the top tier competitions. If that all sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because it’s a mashup of the current CL/EL system and what was being proposed for Project: Big Picture (e.g. long-term licensees.) So, none of this is really new. It’s just new to domestic football arrangements, many of which are mired in tradition and run by guys who still think that Derby County getting a chance to play in the Premier League and rack up 11 points over the entire season is somehow a good thing.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a fan of pro/rel and I’m leery of any kind of closed shop for the same reason that I’m not a fan of entities like the NFL. But I also recognize that dividing lines have been forming in terms of the level of competition and change is inevitable, no matter how much people would like to hearken back to Ipswich Town being a power in English football. Also, the Euroleague project hasn’t been without its legal struggles, as they’ve gone head-to-head with FIBA over the changes they’re making to competitive basketball and the dominant position that the shareholders are wielding that inhibits competition. The Euroleague, in response, has scheduled many of its matches in the same windows that FIBA normally uses for international play, forcing players to choose between club glory and playing for their nations, which is always a hot topic in football circles, as well, since it’s considered a given that everyone will want to play for merrye, olde Eng-land (or Spain, France, etc.)

And, of course, it’s the English legal hurdles that could be most important for the club that I’m usually writing about; especially with Brexit now becoming a reality (sigh…) There’s actually an FA rule that specifically details what a club has to do in order to resign from their current league (has to be by December 31st of the current season, takes effect at the end of that season, indemnifies the league and other clubs from damages and costs of that resignation, etc.) It’s the rule that was exercised in 1991 in order to create the Premier League. So actually making the departure wouldn’t be an issue, but there are all kinds of complications that follow on from that. If Liverpool and Chelsea aren’t playing in an English league any longer, are they still able to draw on the resources of the FA because they’re still playing in England? How would loan deals be complicated, especially given Brexit (sigh…)? Who ends up on the wrong side of a restraint of trade argument? And what about unusual situations, as in Germany, where player contracts specifically tie them to the Bundesliga? Does that mean all contracts at Bayern and Dortmund have to be voided first? Good luck with that. What about participation in national cups? They’re still English clubs, but presumably would separate from the FA, which means they’re not eligible for the FA Cup. That’s of no great concern to those of us who don’t really care about the domestic cups any longer, but it also means fewer matches which means less money and, again, wasn’t more money the point of all of this? Fewer matches means even more reliance on finding your €9 billion high roller.

Speaking of the players (and the fans.) One also has to consider the impact on player performance. You’d go from regular 45 minute to 1 hour flights from Liverpool to Newcastle or London to three hour flights to Milan or Madrid. It doesn’t seem like a huge increase and it’s certainly not San Francisco to Miami, but it adds up, especially when you’re playing weeknight games that mean players won’t be home until the wee hours with another game in three days as is often the case these days. If the Euroleague model is adopted, that means the rotating clubs could come in from anywhere. It won’t just be poor luck of the draw to end up in a group with Fenerbahçe. It’ll be a regular trip to Istanbul on the calendar. With fewer games on the schedule, that’s probably not as much of an issue as it is right now. But the point of this is to make more money which, again, isn’t usually an indicator of fewer matches.

On top of that, it’s a far cry from making a road trip from Bootle to Birmingham than it is having to plan the days off and the significant expense of following the team to Dortmund every year. Again, one of the problems with US sports leagues is that dedicated fans can’t really be dedicated in the same manner as many English club fans, simply because of the higher costs and the geography (the aforementioned SF to Miami flight is six hours…) Those higher costs and distance barriers will certainly be factors in the ability for the traveling Red hordes from Anfield to continue to be a presence. Doing it a few times a year for the CL is one thing. Trying to do it 15 times a year, every year, is something else entirely. Remember the 77th-minute protest I linked above? Imagine how simple that’s going to be when the club is playing half its games across the continent and is no longer dependent on the British media to present its image? As the NFL demonstrates, there are a lot of wealthy people in the US. Expanding a league to all of Europe means that you’re no longer dependent on one domestic audience to fill seats.. You suddenly have five or more, which means that many more people who can afford your higher prices. This is the moment when clubs begin to not care about who can and can’t get into their games.

I saw banners like this when I was at a game in Dortmund last year

Bringing it back around to the players, as much as I’m disdainful of nationalism, a lot of players do want to play for their national sides. Not only will it make the old codgers in the pubs proud, but it also means a higher profile, which means income in terms of personal sponsorships and commercial deals. Mohammed Salah, star of Liverpool isn’t quite as high a profile in Cairo as Mohammed Salah, star of Liverpool and Egypt. But, again, do they get the opportunity to play for the national side if their club is no longer part of the FA? These are things that the players will consider and, consequently, brings into question the viability of this whole scheme, in addition to all of the other hurdles we’ve been talking about.

That leaves a lot of open questions and none of the ideas that have been proposed have been fully-detailed plans because there’s no way to plan for this without bringing in a lot of parties who either don’t exist (Mr. 9 Billion) or who might be seriously opposed (the FA, the Other 14) or who might not yet realize how good or bad it could be for them (the players, the fans.) There’s no clear prediction possible, one way or the other. The only thing I do know is: something is going to change. The picture has transformed so much over the past 20 years that the current operating model is simply no longer a feasible one, for either the big clubs or those stuck in the same division with them while resisting every move that they make. Or, for that matter, whom are operating in a world beyond their means and are dependent upon the largesse of the PL to bail them out (witness today’s agreed upon deal for the EFL.) As always, it’s about the money. It’s always about the money.

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