This is Not a Story About Football
The rich European football clubs wanted their own league, it backfired spectacularly
This is not a story about football (European football or soccer for you American readers). I mean, it is, but at its core, it really isn’t.
Let me explain.
The Champions League is the most popular private clubs sports event in the world. The tournament draws 380 million viewers from more than 200 countries. Winning the Champions League is the most lucrative, most prestigious, and most reputable accomplishment for a local team and for its football players.
The tournament, which is organized by UEFA (Union European Football Associations), was created in 1955 but was successfully rebranded in 1992. Its aim is to have the top clubs in the continent battle for the title of champion of champions.
The tournament starts with 32 teams and is based on fierce competition from its very early stages. The list of participants is dynamic and changes every year, there is no team that holds an automatic right to participate. Each team has to earn its ticket by finishing in a top spot of its local league the previous year.
To put it plainly, even the strongest teams need to work hard in order to participate in the Champions League, and alongside the strong and rich teams, the way the league works allow for a number of smaller, poorer teams to qualify too and play at the world’s largest football stage.
In terms of the business model, UEFA is the one that handles the big money. The union is negotiating the TV rights and sponsorship deals and later distributes the funds among the different participating teams. Every team gets a share of the money, and the further a team gets in the tournament, the more money it gets.
So much for how the Champions League works, now for the problems.
The tournament’s format, in which strong teams play against smaller teams at the early stages has some benefits. It creates diversity, and it could potentially lead to a small team ‘rags to riches’ sports story. We all love those.
The problems have been building up for a few years now. Whereas it’s one thing to watch a match between Manchester United and Barcelona, two large clubs with a multi-million dollar lineup, it’s a completely different experience watching Barcelona playing clubs from Cyprus, Denmark, or Israel, for example. Most of the time, it’s not a real match.
And so crowds got bored, and mainly, the big clubs got frustrated. It’s obvious that fans want to watch the strong clubs playing each other; Playing the small clubs felt like a waste of time.
But that was not the big issue. It’s money. And lots of it.
The UEFA Champions League’s revenue is in the billions. $2.37 billion in TV rights alone to be precise, and there’s more coming from sponsors. The winning team receives $120 million. Not bad, but the big clubs felt it’s not enough.
The owners of the major European clubs looked west, towards the USA, and they came to a realization. European football is the most popular and profitable sport in the world. The large clubs have a huge fan base from many countries, and yet they generate less money than even an average NBA or NFL team.
Things became even more complicated during the Covid-19 pandemic. With no games, and later, with no crowds, the large clubs lost billions. This hit accelerated the notion that something needs to change in the management and the distribution of funds. Suddenly, an idea that was talked about for years but was never really considered viable came into fruition.
On the night of April 18, twelve of Europe’s largest and richest football clubs released a joint statement. 6 clubs from the UK, 3 clubs from Italy, and 3 clubs from Spain decided to leave the Champions League and form a new tournament, the ‘Super League’.
This initiative was designed to tackle all of the problems these clubs had with the traditional tournament.
Firstly, all 12 founding clubs will participate in the Super League automatically, and no matter their rank in their local leagues. They can’t get relegated from it, they can’t lose their ticket, they’re always in.
Secondly, and most importantly, the clubs will manage and distribute the profits. The announcement came with the financial backing of JP Morgan bank, and with an estimation of each club making up to 4 times more than it did in the Champions League.
The rich European football clubs wanted to create a private league, they wanted to make the European football’s version of the NBA or NFL. A way for them to eliminate the need to secure a ticket each year, a way for them to eliminate the need to play against small clubs, and mainly, a way for them to control the rules and make a lot more money.
The world of sports was in total shock. No one had a clue this was actually coming.
This announcement carried a death sentence to the Champions League and local leagues as well.
Firstly, the Champions League would be left without its biggest clubs and without its biggest stars. This most definitely means a huge drop in viewership and earnings. The most lucrative league in the world seemed doomed.
Secondly, local leagues were at risk too. In England, for example, the top 4 teams in the local Premier League season get a ticket to next year’s Champions League. The clubs fight with everything they’ve got in order to reach one of the top 4 places. With the new Super League, and with the 6 main clubs automatically qualifying, there’s no more need to really compete in the local league.
Moreover, the smaller teams would now have no incentive to get better. They wouldn’t be able to reach the European tournament in the first place as the rich clubs wouldn’t let them in.
The outrage was massive. Fans protested, leaders threatened, managers and players criticized the move. The most significant reaction came from UEFA itself. Alongside threatening legal action, UEFA made an unprecedented move. The union went after the players and threatened that any player who participates in the Super League would be banned from representing his national team. This was an all-out war.
UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin told the press, “I cannot stress more strongly how everyone is united against these disgraceful, self-serving proposals, fuelled by greed above all else. We are all united against this nonsense of a project. Cynical plan, completely against what football should be. We cannot and will not allow that to change”.
The pressure was mounting up. The 12 club owners were portrayed as greedy, and forcefully crushing the spirit of competition. They were seen as cynical opportunists who, in their quest for bigger profits, destroyed the heart of the game.
With huge public pressure, and increasing threats, a most incredible thing happened. It took just over 24 hours and the Super League was dead. All major clubs pulled out of the project. Their stocks and their reputation took a massive hit.
I started off by saying that this is not a story about football. Although talking about football until now, I still believe that.
The Super League fiasco is a fascinating example of the battle between the rich and the poor, the strong and the weak. It’s a case in which the powerful felt like those smaller than them are keeping them down. And so, the rich decided to form their own community, one that’ll make them even more powerful and rich.
They were willing to forsake their fans, abandon a tradition of centuries. They were willing to crush the spirit of the industry they were a part of. All for money.
Eventually, the people rose up. They fought for their place. Those smaller and weaker told the powerful that there are lines they could not cross, that some things are just not done. They reminded the rich and powerful that without them, the people, they are nothing.
And so the rich caved in, they have lost, and will now have to win the trust of the people again.
This is not a story about football, this happens all the time and everywhere. Mostly, it ends differently, but once in a while, the people succeed in scoring the winning goal.