European Super League: The Ungodly Fruit We Can’t Resist

“It’s all ‘bout the money / it’s all about the dum dum duh dee dum dum,” sang Swedish artist Meja in 1998. Cut to November 2018. Those same words sprung to my mind while I was perusing Der Spiegel’s investigative article “Documents Show Secret Plans for Elite League of Top Clubs.” Like Forbes put it, “it [was] a story we’ve heard many times,” a long-mooted, open secret that goes as follows: the titans of European football are conspiring to break free from domestic restrictions, and hence working on plans to create a private league of their own. The titans being Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United, Juventus, Chelsea, Arsenal, Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester City, Liverpool, AC Milan, and Bayern München. (The implementation of the super league would effectively mean that its eleven founding members drop out of the UEFA Champions League.) The whistleblowing report also names five annual guest clubs: Atlético Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Internazionale, Marseille and Roma.

Half a century ago, monetizing the game required friendlies overseas; as compared to today, when customers fancy ultra-competitive matches. Even the International Champions Cup seems to be losing its spark, as non-Europeans demand to see competitive and meaningful match-ups, e.g. Super Cups.

The irresistible allure of the ESL is understandable for some clubs. After all, teams such as Bayern München, Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus face relatively little competition domestically and often map out painless paths toward the title, hence pushing more and more chips into the Champions League.

On 14 September 2018 — two games into the domestic season — the odds for Bayern München winning the Bundesliga sat between 1/12 and 1/14; as per the odds, Bayern topping their Champions League group should have been twice as hard as winning the Bundesliga title has been. In other words, finishing first in a group that contained Benfica, Ajax and AEK Athens was seen as a longer shot than finishing first in a league that contained Borussia Dortmund, Bayer Leverkusen, Eintracht Frankfurt, and 14 more teams. PSG, on the other hand, won the domestic quadruple (that’s FOUR titles) last season, but seeing that they fell short in the Champions League, Unai Emery had to move house to North London.

However, the Champions League in itself isn’t considered enough because it’s played so frequently and it’s not generating as much revenue as many club executives would prefer. Unlike the Premier League (which had already surpassed the National Hockey League (NHL) and the National Basketball Association (NBA) in terms of generated revenue in 2016), the Champions League is not exceeding its potential with the way it is sold and distributed in broadcast packages.

The chairman of Juventus, Andrea Agnelli, pointed out in 2016 that Champions League broadcasting rights are valued somewhere around €1.5 billion, whereas the National Football League’s (NFL) equivalent stands at €7 billion.

This despite the fact that there are 1.6 billion association football fans compared to those 150 million people who follow the American version of football. Even the NHL, the flagship of a sport whose popularity extends across Northern Hemisphere, precedes domestic leagues like Bundesliga, La Liga, Serie A, and Ligue 1 in terms of externally generated revenue.

That’s certainly food for thought, considering the fact that a 2017 Gallup poll showed that association football was picked by 7% of American adults as their ‘favorite sport to watch,’ that number being higher than ice hockey. But — according to freelance writer Leo Robson, “the leading European leagues — England, France, Germany, Spain, Italy — generated almost $18 billion during the 2016-17 season, a 9% increase.

It is therefore easy to see why the finest members of these aforementioned leagues want to combine forces and tackle Premier League’s financial status. After all, there are clubs in the bottom half of the PL who could theoretically afford to pay for the services of Cristiano Ronaldo. On the other hand, Premier League’s big six is tired of hand-feeding the others (even though they should maximise their income in the long run) because it contradicts their wish of attracting the world’s best players to the British Isles.

The Ungodly Fruit…

When the gap between the richest and the poorest grows too large, do we — the football fans of 2019 — solve the issue by allowing the richest to form a sovereign haven of their own?

As we partake in conversations about European Super League, some might forget teams that aren’t of elite status, and how the ESL would affect those teams. If the league would be built upon wealth — rather than merit — the European footballing landscape would run the risk of turning into a monopoly, a cartel. Closed-model leagues that work in North America may not work in Europe, as domestic leagues have always been the plinth of the culture of European team sports.

Should the European Super League turn into an isolated entity of its own accord, domestic leagues would be in danger of wilting. As the biggest teams from each domestic league would transfer to the new league, so would their following, their fans, and their exposure. New powers would emerge, but with only a glorified domestic title at stake, a lion’s share of broadcast and central income, financial support that could be used for teams in dire straits would likely be diverted to already-filled pockets. Say, the pockets of Barcelona for example. (As it stands, Barcelona’s salary limit/spending is over ten times larger than the equivalent of 11 other La Liga sides. Alas, a directive wouldn’t probably allow the ESL to implement a salary cap.) Together with adept accountants, smaller teams would have to figure out how to escape the claws of bankruptcy.

Having examined around 27,ooo Football League matches, the initial findings of University of Liverpool’s Babatunde Buraimo, and Lancaster University’s Jake Owen and Rob Simmons gave the impression that midweek broadcasts of Premier League and Champions League diminish attendance numbers across the lower leagues of the English system.

When League Two games, for example, coincided with European nights between 2000 and 2018, their gates were, on average, 16% lower than one would expect.

Buraimo pointed out: “Our research shows the degree of suffering from high-end football. If football is truly a sport where solidarity and the grass roots matter, then increasing the level of subsidy further down the pyramid is quite affordable.” Would the European Super League further hasten the movement that has seen football clubs gradually lose their values?

After all, the hypothetical league has faced criticism for not taking supporters into consideration. “[I] can’t imagine one match-going football fan that would ever in a million years want a European Super League,” claimed John Bennett of BBC on the same day, when Der Spiegel turned the concept into a matter of public knowledge. Moreover, in his 1968 book History of British Football, the musicologist Percy M. Young recognized “football connoisseurs”: practitioners of a newfound manner to engage with football, those who only watch attractive football. However, connoisseurs were not too keen to hold onto their principles: the meaning of football, after all, was to sing and celebrate, not to be a snob. The Labour M.P. Roy Hattersley estimated in 1980 that even though there might be “a few [English] thousand purists who see football as an art and watch it to enjoy the objective beauty of rhythm and form,” partisans prominently saw it as a way to spend one’s time. “The rest of us want to see our team win.”

Despite the prominence of Real Madrid and Bayern München, we struggle to get over our clubs, our first loves.

…We Can’t Resist?

It’s of great significance to understand the dignity and worth of the people that we’ve cast as enemies, and understand the other side of one’s argument. Even though Bennett claimed the contrary, it’s likely that the private members’ club would eventually justify its existence by attracting all kinds of money flows across the six continents, from Nordkapp to Agbogbloshie. (Would the big clubs have proceeded with their plans before conducting multiple researches on its profit potential?)

The existence of commercial interest in a year-round Champions League-esque competition is undoubtable. We might one day feel obliged to obsess over it.

You see, not many football fans can resist the lure of the European Cup; just ask the drunken Jürgen Klopp what he thinks of it, and he’ll tell you: there’s nothing quite like it. A brisk spring breeze rippling inside the stadium, as European heavyweights clash against one another; what’s not to like? Moments that occur in a second or two constitute the iconography of the competition, endlessly replayed in slow motion, captured in thousands of pieces of Twitterature.

Even my father — who sarcastically claims to be a fan of both Liverpool and Manchester United — sometimes takes a seat and treats himself with a bit of Champions League footy. To resist match-ups such as Manchester United v Paris Saint-Germain is beyond the bounds of possibility. He may even find himself skipping due to the texture and sheer suspense of the match’s offering.

“We are a better team in the Champions League because we have more motivation,” said Marcelo last season.

For someone who loves the beautiful game but is not connected to any team, (club) football doesn’t get any more dramatic than the Champions League. Hence the European Super League is inevitable, I believe. Due to the rise of money and media saturation, football is craving for its own major league.

In recent years, a number of first-class clubs have voiced their support for more money-spinning ties. Barcelona, for example, support both the ESL and Gianni Infantino’s Club World Cup. Moreover, organisations such as Juventus are in desperate need of the Super League seeing that, as it stands, they are being held back by the lack of global exposure and are therefore forced to hand out leeway to Qatari-backed yuppies and Premier League beneficiaries.

Fans of super clubs aren’t just locals anymore, and whether we like it or not, some consumers switch alliances in the wake of their favourite player’s employers. Ask a person from China whether he’d rather see Chelsea square up to Huddersfield or Juventus, and the odds are they’d choose Juventus. Would a youngster rather spend his Saturday afternoon streaming Atlético Madrid vs. Rayo Vallecano or Atléti vs. Paris Saint-Germain, given the fact that the match-going audience is getting increasingly older, as rising ticket prices box them out?

A multinational fanbase is not particularly attached to domestic minnows. Viewing numbers suggest that it wants entertainment, something that lopsided leagues and de rigueur routings can’t usually offer. It wants unpredictability, something that Champions Leagues (and World Cups) do offer.

Even if they don’t know it yet, fans are the main reason why those European Super League plans exist. They are (unwillingly, some might argue) driving football toward the sport’s next phase. Sooner or later, streaming services and ubiquitous consumerism will bury the game’s local foundations. Que sera, sera.

Like Arsène Wenger concluded his argument, “European Super League is inevitable.” In one form or another.

By: Marco Heta