The European Super League seems to have been controversial from its very inception. After a quiet announcement that resulted in an incredibly vocal backlash from fans, what is/was the Super League and why do fans seem to hate it so much?
So even if you not into football, soccer, whatever you want to call it, you’ve certainly heard something about the Super League. But what in the world is it? Was it? Is it still happening? Why is everyone so angry? To make some sense of it here’s a basic rundown of what the hell happened with the European Super League.
The Super League was intended to be 20 of the ‘best’ football clubs in a tournament made for TV. Well, that doesn’t sound so bad, right? Yeah, I guess. Except that what the Super League defined as the ‘best’ clubs were those with the most money and the biggest fanbases.
Last week, 12 of the richest teams in Europe announced they’d be joining the invite-only competition. Now this is in stark contrast to how football tournaments work right now. The current pyramid system sees teams rewarded with higher levels of competition, more prize money etc. by their performance on the field. If your team played well enough for a consistent amount of time, your team could go from one of the lower leagues all the way up to something like the English Premier League (different for each country etc.). To get into the Super League, the requirements are a little different: you have to have money.
It was no longer a meritocracy and things like television and foreign-owned clubs are being blamed for this short-sighted and greedy plan.
Who's To Blame?
Over the past 20 years, the UEFA Champions League participants have been handed broadcast fees on top of the prize money. This has hurt the domestic leagues from which these teams have come from. The gap between clubs and the money they earn is growing much larger as each year goes on. The Super League would have been the nail in the coffin for a lot of these clubs. Clubs like Bayern Munich or Paris Saint-Germain win so many of their games because they can afford to spend big amounts of money on the best players (a simplification, I know).
This has created a transfer-based arms race between the clubs as they will try to outspend their rivals when signing players in order to grab headlines. Clubs don’t seem to want to produce players of their own anymore but use transfers as a way to keep the hype-train rolling.
This has become so bad that foreign owned clubs like Arsenal, Manchester United, and Inter Milan have been called out for losing touch with their homegrown fans. Again, the reason for this is money. Football is a multi-billion-dollar global business after all.
There is very little money to be made in the local communities anymore. What’s the point in trying to sell jerseys and TV rights to people that already have them? So, many of these clubs have been moving to new markets in Asia, Africa, and Australia to move their merchandise and TV rights.
This highlights a contradiction that modern football has been struggling with for decades. Football is a global business that attracts people from all over the world, but the clubs are still tethered to the towns/cities in which they were founded. How do you reconcile that? The architects of the Super League believed that this new league was the solution. It would essentially remove the biggest club’s homegrown fanbases. This didn’t go over well.
Just 48 hours after the announcement of the Super League, all six of the English Premier League teams that signed on had pulled out due to fan backlash. These teams included Liverpool FC, Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Tottenham, and Chelsea. In total, nine teams out the founding 12 have pulled out including Atletico Madrid, Inter Milan, and AC Milan. Backlash is putting it mildly, there were mass protests all over Europe, especially in England.
Many prominent names in football came out in opposition to the League. A real turning point was when Gary Neville, ex-Manchester United player and current Sky Sports pundit said on-air,
“It’s an absolute disgrace. The [club owners] are nothing to do with football in this country. There are a hundred-odd years of history in this country from fans who have loved these clubs, and they need protecting.”
Since then, many owners of these clubs came out with public apologies. John Henry, American owner of Liverpool FC stated,
“It goes without saying but should be said that the project put forward was never going to stand without the support of the fans. I alone am responsible for the unnecessary negativity brought forward over the past couple of days. It’s something I won’t forget. And shows the power the fans have today and will rightly continue to have.”
Aleksander Ceferin, the President of UEFA, stated that “The disgraceful, self-serving proposals we have seen in the past 24 hours are fuelled purely by greed.” To be fair, The Super League would compromise the future of UEFA’s own Champion’s League but he’s not really wrong, is he?
There were even official condemnations from the governments of France, Spain, Italy, and Greece. It really seems that absolutely no one liked this idea. After the announcement of many teams leaving the Super League, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that,
“This is the right result for football fans, clubs, and communities across the country. We must continue to protect our cherished national game.”
A Club advisor told the Financial Review that, “They got so excited and carried away with the money and the idea of being game changers they didn’t think to stop.”
Coaches and players within these clubs have expressed their discontent with the Super League like Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool’s manager,
“The part I have struggled with is seeing this club, a place I love and am now proud to call my home, trashed – and done so in a manner which suggest no redemption is possible. That I can’t take.”
'It's a League to Save Football'
“This is not a league for the rich, it’s a league to save football,” said Florentino Perez, the billionaire Spanish industrialist and president of Real Madrid. Perez also happens to be the man who spearheaded this entire project. I imagine it must be hard to say this is saving football with a straight face when the founding 15 teams in the Super League were set to receive between €200 million and €300 million just for joining the league, and then the teams would further split €4 billion in projected revenues from broadcasting and sponsorship rights. Definitely seems like their motivation was for the good of the sport.
Perez has stated that the Super League is necessary as, in his view, young people no longer have the attention spans to watch domestic football. If you’re scratching your head after reading that, you’re not alone. Others have decided to call it for what it is, a bunch of bull.
The more likely reason for Perez’s insistence on the Super League is likely due to the increasing amount of debt clubs like Real Madrid have found themselves in. The club, under Perez’s leadership has accrued debts of over €900 million. Perez’s spending choices have been blamed by many. For example, in 2017, Perez initiated a €525 million renovation of the club’s Santiago Bernabeu home ground that didn’t even add one single seat to the stadium’s capacity. The idea was to make the stadium a tourist attraction in order to fix the holes Perez left in their revenue stream through years of overspending on transfer fees and player wages.
Teams who have also been severely affected by the coronavirus pandemic like Barcelona and Inter Milan are also looking for way to increase their revenue and ‘plug up their holes.’
It’s been no secret that Perez has been after way to increase Real Madrid’s revenue for at least two years. Perez had allegedly been pitching the Super League to potential investors like the private equity firm CVC Capital Partners two years ago. So it should be no surprise that JP Morgan are one of the League’s biggest investors.
How Did It all Fall Apart So Quickly?
You would think that with such large amounts of money at stake they would have been prepared for a possible reaction like this. Dr Katarina Pijetlovic, author of EU Sports Law and Break Away Leagues in Football, refuses to believe that this was a serious attempt to establish an alternative league.
“This wasn’t a serious or genuine attempt because any serious breakaway league or alternative league of any kind, particularly the Super League where the money involved – we’re talking billions and we’re talking powerful investors such as JP Morgan behind them – everybody would do their due diligence. [This] hasn’t happened, not even the basics were covered. I can’t see that this was a genuine attempt…if this was a serious project then it was extremely badly planned, organised, executed, communicated… and so on every level it has not been thought through.”
Badly planned? Poorly organised? That doesn’t sound like the Perez we know…
What Does the Future Look Like?
Perez has talked about the clubs having binding contracts and that they can’t actually leave,
“I’m not going to explain what a binding contract is, but the clubs can’t leave. Some clubs, under pressure, have had to say that they are leaving. But this project, or another very similar one, will go ahead, and I hope soon.”
It almost sounds like a threat and he’s probably right. They will try again with a different approach and maybe propose a new format for the Super League. The name of Super League will not be able to go forward, the name is too tainted now. A rebranding is definitely necessary.
So is the Super League dead? Yes. And no. There’s too much money that’s involved to back down now so what may happen is another attempt in a different guise. Hopefully they learn from this experience and provide something that will please the fans. Or maybe it’s better that they don’t learn anything and try the same thing again so that fans prevent greed from destroying their beloved game.