A dozen of the world’s biggest soccer clubs – including those in Barcelona, Manchester United and Liverpool – announced on April 18, 2021, that they are forming a new European super league, underwritten by a reported US$5.5 billion in funding from banking giant J.P. Morgan Chase. The competition – membership in which is expected to expand to 20 teams – would supersede the UEFA Champions League, which is the competition in which these top-tier teams usually compete.
The clubs have two motives for creating this breakaway league. First, the proposal would significantly increase the number of games played among big clubs from different countries. This would likely attract huge global audiences and significantly increase revenues – to be split among the member clubs. Second, the intention is that the founder clubs would be guaranteed a place in the league regardless of how they performed in the previous season. In contrast, clubs have to earn their place in the Champions League and all European national leagues.
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.
But the desire of the elites to insulate themselves from competition and enhance profitability is much more questionable. And it is here that much of the backlash has been directed.
A sporting world leagues apart
To an American audience, the move might seem uncontroversial, but to Europeans it represents a fundamental breach with tradition and has raised enormous passions.
All major professional leagues in North America are “closed” leagues; obtaining entry to a league is secured by payment of a franchise fee, which for the major leagues would amount to billions of dollars nowadays.
But soccer leagues in Europe have always been “open” leagues. Divisions are ranked according to a recognized hierarchy – the best teams play in the top league, the next-best group in the second, and so on.
Every season the best-performing teams in lower divisions obtain promotion to the next league up, while the worst-performing teams are relegated to the next tier down. This promotion-and-relegation system characterizes the organization of soccer in almost every country in the world, with the U.S. being a notable exception.
The European Commission has long described the system as “one of the key features of the European model of sport.”
Americans are often puzzled by the commitment of Europeans to this promotion-and-relegation system. After all, promoted teams can be uncompetitive, ensuring relegation 12 months later. And a team currently playing in the fourth tier of its national league system is very unlikely to play in the Champions League – not soon, and probably not ever.
Nonetheless, fans of these small clubs responded to news of the Super League with outrage. The belief that one’s team, no matter how small, can make it to the top tier, playing against the best clubs – regardless of the fact that the odds are stacked against this – is a dream many smaller clubs cling to. It is the soccer equivalent of the American dream.
And versions of this dream have happened. The English club Leicester City went into bankruptcy in 2002 and was relegated to the third tier in 2008 – but won the Premier League at odds of 5,000-1 in 2016, guaranteeing it a place among the European elite in the Champions League the following year.
An own goal?
Without the opportunity to rise up the system, the European soccer system will end up much like baseball in America – a sport dominated by one major league, controlling a collection of minor league teams, with no lower-level competition to speak of.
But baseball in the U.S. needn’t have taken that direction. A century ago, American baseball was more like European soccer – every town of any size had a team playing in a league that commanded significant local interest. History books tell us that these teams and leagues were killed off by radio and TV, giving fans access to a higher level of competition that was deemed to be more attractive to watch.
But that’s not quite the whole story. Europe got radio and TV too, but every small town has its own team competing in a league at some level in the hierarchy. These teams did not die when people were able to watch higher-quality soccer on TV – because these teams embodied the one quality that lies at the core of both sport and human survival: hope. Ask any fans of a small club about whether their team could one day rise to the top, and they will likely tell you that they believe.
What Europeans fear, and loathe, about the proposed Super League is that it will be a first step toward ending the promotion-and-relegation system, which to supporters across the continent amounts to saying that it is the first step toward extinguishing hope.
It is also not lost on European fans that three of the prime movers of the Super League are American owners of major franchises – the Glazer family, which owns both Manchester United and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers; John Henry, Liverpool and Boston Red Sox owner; and Arsenal and Colorado Avalanche owner Stan Kroenke.
The proposed Super League would in all likelihood increase both their profits and their power within the game. Already, the backlash has featured an element of anti-Americanism. And given the high feelings across Europe to this proposal, that could become very ugly.