Awaiting Change: Exploring the journey towards a European Super League

At the end of October 2020, the perennial cycle of proposal and response around the creation of a European Superleague was ignited by a grenade casually thrown into his resignation speech by the outgoing Barcelona president, Josep Maria Bartomeu.

“I can announce something that will change in an extraordinary way the future revenue of the club for years to come,” Bartomeu pronounced. “The board of directors have approved the acceptance of requirements to take part in a future European Super League of clubs, a project put forward by the biggest clubs in Europe.”

This particular iteration of the Super League proposal was supported by FIFA and, as it always does, provoked an immediate response from the UEFA-backed Champions League. The Super League proposal was allegedly also backed by a guaranteed investment package of €6bn to facilitate its creation.

Appetite for change

Of course, these discussions are nothing new. Shortly before the creation of the English Premier League in 1992, a group led by Silvio Berlusconi set out their vision for a breakaway European competition. In 2016, another group including several members of the European Club Association (ECA) discussed joining a new competition proposed by the US billionaire Stephen Ross.

As Super League discussions have sporadically arisen, as have talks around the creation of league mergers to protect the financial interests of the clubs that may be left behind by the competition. For example, there are ongoing discussions on the merging of the Eredivisie and the Belgian Jupiler Pro League, as well as occasional theorizing around how a potential Atlantic League may look. The original purpose of such a league came from the hierarchy of PSV Eindhoven and expected the first iteration to include Anderlecht, Club Brugge, KV Oostende, Standard Liege, FC Copenhagen, Brøndby, JK Helsinki, Ajax, Feyenoord, PSV, Rosenborg, Celtic, Rangers, AIK, and Malmö.

The motivations behind these plans – and the constant cycle of proposal and counter-proposal – are always the same. The behemoths of European football want to play more matches against each other in the belief that such a competition would deliver increased broadcasting and commercial revenues. Many of the owners of these clubs are particularly wary of the spectre of relegation – even if their odds of succumbing to it are incredibly slim – and the huge amount of financial and competitive uncertainty that such a fate can bring to bear. Therefore, the future may see the creation of a European Super League with a version of the Atlantic League forming the second tier in a mirroring of the current Champions League/Europa League system, albeit in a full league format.  

As with previous proposals for a European Super League, fan opinion is split along predictable lines. A recent BBC Sport poll suggests that the way fans feel about a breakaway competition tends to depend on their age and where they live. Close to half of younger fans (48%) said they would be happy about a Super League with only 18% unhappy, whereas only 10% of over 55s were happy, with 63% unhappy. Across the regions of the UK there are similar differences between the large urban conurbations of London, the Midlands and the North West (all above 30% happy) and the less populated areas (fans in East Anglia, for example, were only 19% happy with the proposals).

The Swiss System

As is natural with the interplay between clubs and governing bodies, UEFA typically responds to the threat of a Super League by buying off its proponents. Recently this has taken the form of adjusting the format of the Champions League to satisfy the needs of the big clubs (more games against each other). The model that is emerging as the favorite is what is known as the ‘Swiss System’, a model used in competitions as diverse as chess, badminton and esports among others, including major US sports to some extent. The benefit of the system is that it enables large numbers of entrants to be managed without needing every team to play each other during the competition.

The system would enable as many as 36 clubs to compete in a single division. A draw would then select 10 matches for each team based on seeding criteria. The resulting points acquired would create a league table ranking, from which the top 16 would progress to the knockout rounds. The top club would play the team that finished 16th and so on. As with the current situation, a proportion of those clubs failing to qualify for the latter stages would go straight into the knockout phase of the second-tier competition.

While such a solution might satisfy the various constituencies, it would also ensure that the rich get richer and widen the gap between the elite and the also-rans. At the last count, Deloitte estimated that revenues of the 10 richest clubs in Europe amounted to €6.3bn and would grow even further with the new system.

Accident or design?

UEFA only makes such sweeping concessions when it perceives a genuine threat. Recent circumstances (including but not limited to the Covid-19) have conspired to make a breakaway competition more feasible. In addition to the aftermath of the pandemic, there is the forthcoming expiration of the current international match calendar in 2024 and growing interest from institutional investors, particularly sports business specialists in North America. Of course, FIFA will seek to protect the international calendar, hence its support for the Super League, whereas an expanded Champions League would need to reduce the number of international breaks.

When accepted as a gradual movement towards the inevitable eventuality of a Super League, the current mission creep makes sense from a business perspective. However, there does not seem to be an agreed consensus around a single desired end-state. This could be construed as UEFA sleepwalking towards a Super League or the ECA pursuing a Super League by stealth. At Sportsology we tend to lean towards the sleepwalking explanation.

Planning for the inevitable

The establishment of a Super League is a when not an if situation and domestic leagues will need to adapt. As with any major change, it is far better to plan for it than to simply let it happen to you while you’re not paying attention. Some serious scenario planning needs to take place in the boardrooms of all the relevant organizations to map out the likely consequences of such a competition.

For example, the lower leagues in the UK may need to become regional and potentially even semi-professional (at least in part). Those clubs will no longer be part of an infinite pyramid, but will see the drawbridge pulled up below Championship level. Relegation play-offs will become the norm, increasing broadcast revenues while simultaneously providing greater insurance against relegation for the bigger clubs. More fans may be enticed to lower league football by what could become a ‘retro’ product of local team turnstile support. Clubs that are not part of the Super League or senior domestic league cartel will emerge as partners or farm clubs feeding the squads of the big players, becoming financially sustainable through the security of the wealth of the senior partner.

Change is inevitable, imagining what it might be and planning accordingly is essential.

Image: Krzysztop Hepner/Unsplash