European Super League: greed or natural evolution?
Sense and consequence
As per the news today, the Big Six of the Premier League have signed up to the proposed European Super League with Juventus (Agnelli was the proponent so no surprises here), Inter, AC Milan, Real, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid. Just when we thought the expanded Champions League format would end this prospect, it seems more real than ever. Is it greed or an evolution?
European Super League — Greed?
From the emerging proposals, the ESL will be a closed competition of 12 (or some more) clubs who will play ESL games in midweek while also playing in their respective domestic leagues.
The move has understandably drawn widespread condemnation from former players and even Boris Johnson and Macron. A closed competition devoid of sporting merit, has no place in sport for a start. It’s not real. Also, the interest in such a competition is hard to imagine given that it lacks a domestic contest. Do people really want to see Arsenal v AC Milan or Spurs v Atletico Madrid week in week out? Not very sure because there is no history or context or derby. Nothing. In recent times, Real Madrid v Barcelona has become a global phenomenon of sorts but that was mainly due to the sub-text of a Messi-Ronaldo rivalry. Other teams will not have that attraction. Even the El Clasico now, is not the same as in previous years when these two played. ESL includes the two Milan sides who despite their rich history are quite poor now. AC Milan has remained (major) trophyless for nearly a decade. Last time out, they had to play a qualifier to get into the Europa League even. The Champions League, a competition where they have stellar history, has of late seemed a target too high. Inter, for all its table topping antics this season made a very poor UCL exit. Add in Arsenal, who are mid-table mediocrity, and Spurs, who last won the domestic league in 1961, and it is clear that sporting merit is not the criteria here. It’s about money. The 12 clubs are in the Top 16 most valuable clubs worldwide as per Forbes.
The concept of ESL is a jolt to fans and may well be the darkest day in the history of football. Coronavirus already played helter-skelter with schedules. VAR fiascos, particularly in the Premier League, sucked the joy out of the game. The ESL is probably the final nail in the coffin of the game that was once played for sport, competition and skill exhibition.
European Super League —or Evolution?
The shamelessly visible greed of the ESL is an embarrassment. Having said that, is ESL inherently evil — or consequence of UEFA’s (mis)management of the game. Is ESL the wolf in sheep’s clothing or are the proverbial chickens coming back home to UEFA to roost? More fingers point to the latter.
The UEFA model had been to maximize revenues for its clubs.
- More football = more TV rights to sell = more $$.
To accomplish this, it keeps on diluting the essence of its competitions by introducing ever increasing bloat. The Champions League is full of non-champions, compared to the erstwhile European Cup which was limited to champions only — a truly elite trophy. The extra UCL qualification slots only serve to “ensure” that the bigger clubs, who account for more TV revenue, can have multiple “chances” to qualify. The big clubs in a league often financially outweigh smaller ones by orders of magnitude. In some cases, a star player can be financially bigger than a club. Messi’s wages are greater than the entire wage bill of Granada. With this disproportionate financial might, a Top 3-4 in their league is as good as guaranteed for elite clubs.
As if this was not enough, UEFA has further insulated elite clubs from new competition. This is done via Financial Fair Play. Under the pretext of fairness and stability, these laws only serve to ensure that the established elite never face undue competition from upstarts. FFP might have some use but it reduces competition, leading to a perennially uneven playing field.
UEFA allowed the big clubs to get bigger and bigger — and insulated them from any new competition.
- Elite clubs = more TV rights to sell more expensively = more $$.
With their history, brand power and exposure, the established elite, now a protected species, grow consistently in size and stature. Their history gives them a voice and their multiple revenue streams kept them afloat even when results on the pitch are dire.
In time though, something changed. Big data (for smart recruitment) and evolution in tactics meant that smaller clubs could now challenge the established elite. In some cases, they could even push them out of lucrative UCL slots. Gradually, this threat became more real. The “Fear of Missing Out” was compounded by other factors — mainly exorbitant transfer fees, eye-watering wages — and then, the COVID downturn.
The pressure on the pampered elite grew. The ESL concept, which had been floated before, directly or indirectly, became a natural solution for the challenges that these elite clubs faced. UEFA responded with what it knew best — further enlarging the Champions League whose expanded teams and league format means more eyeballs to sell to, and richer cuts for the established elite. While this was seemingly done to placate ESL separatists, the timing of the announcement, just before the UCL format changes were set to be ratified, suggest something different at play.
Given the sense of betrayal felt by many at the ESL announcement, we can insinuate that maybe the ESL clubs used the UCL reformatting as a ruse — to see how much UEFA could flex to their demands, before announcing a breakaway. Thinking rationally though, it was a clash of business models.
- UEFA’s model is about making more money through more games.
- ESL’s model is about making more money through less games — and restricting the financial ecosystem to their cartel.
What seems like a revolt is only a response by elite clubs to what the game has become. Football today is a high risk game, demanding ever increasing sums to money to obtain less than guaranteed returns. A club can pay close 100s of millions in transfer fees and wages yet not “guarantee” anything in return. Even the previously reserved UCL spots have competition now.
Football is a business but the business of football is becoming unsustainable for the very teams who got it to such nebulous levels. ESL then is a natural reaction by the clubs who generate the biggest revenues to safeguard their own financial future.
From a business perspective, ESL makes perfect sense. There are legitimate concerns like transfer fees etc. and if a closed cartel can end or reduce these, by say introducing a NBA draft type system, it will provide much greater stability and predictability to investors, and therefore, to clubs. Also if they can make more money by playing less games, then why not. Of course, football is not purely business and this is why an idea like ESL, which is totally devoid of sporting merit falls splat on its face. The only motivation is money. Extrapolating from that, it is not too far-fetched to see the ESL in 10 years do away entirely with football rules and become an exhibition sport with the gaudiness one associates with WWE or NFL.
The culture of greed that UEFA allowed to take root in European football has manifested itself as the ESL. UEFA over-commercialized football and got beaten at its own game by the very darlings it nurtured. There is talk of sanctions for clubs joining ESL. That is required — at the very least ESL clubs should not be allowed to compete in domestic and UEFA continental leagues. However, to truly recover from this bombshell, UEFA have only choice — bring the soul back to football. Restore sporting pride, reduce bloat and allow new clubs to emerge to keep leagues competitive. Instead of more is more, UEFA should adopt the less is more philosophy if it wants to beat the ESL at their new game.
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