European football was rocked on Sunday by the revelation that a number of top clubs – 12 were named in a press release – had agreed to form the Super League, a midweek tournament that would be a direct rival to the UEFA Champions League.
Those are Manchester United, Real Madrid, Liverpool, Juventus and Barcelona, whose league is presided over by Real owner Florentino Perez. (Juve president Andrea Agnelli and ManUnited owner Joel Glaser will be vice-presidents of the new league).
This is not the first time such rumors have surfaced, but the timing is what makes this different. (Editor’s note: This story has been updated following Super League confirmation of the 12 clubs originally listed).
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UEFA is expected to approve changes to the Champions League on Monday, including an expanded format, more matches and an adjustment to the revenue distribution. The changes were only agreed on Friday after lengthy negotiations with Europe’s leading clubs and the European Club Association (ESA). All of this will now be overshadowed – and potentially rendered meaningless – if Europe’s biggest clubs pull out of the deal and in fact plan to pull out as early as 2022, according to reports.
However, the implications go far beyond that. UEFA is not just an organiser of competitions, it is a confederation whose task is to redistribute revenue and develop football on the continent. The Champions League is their biggest cash cow and a severely weakened league will have a major impact on the sport across Europe. That’s one of the reasons one of UEFA’s executives told ESPN that they are willing to fight to the end.
Q: Haven’t we been here before? Didn’t you write in October that we were ripe for this change?
A : Yes, but it appeared that the genie was back in the bottle during ECA’s negotiations with UEFA for an expanded Champions League. The ECA wanted more teams and more matches (to generate more revenue); they also wanted more management and control over how the Champions League was run commercially, and they wanted changes to the distribution of revenue. It has taken a long time – UEFA had initially hoped to announce the reclassification last month – and negotiations were difficult, but at 11am on Friday ECA reached an agreement with UEFA. So you can imagine that UEFA was not elated when they heard about the possible split on Sunday….., especially since the president of the ECA, Andrea Agnelli, is also the president of Juventus. And Juventus is one of the signatories of this agreement.
Q: How will the new Super League work?
A : Details are still being worked out, but the Super League finally released a statement Sunday night. There will be 15 founding clubs – 12 have already been named, the other three would be Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and Paris Saint-Germain – and each year a further five may be eligible based on the previous season’s performance. (This format, by the way, is very similar to basketball’s Euroleague, which is also the result of a split).
Two groups of 10 teams will be formed, with home and away games. The top three teams from each group qualify for the quarter-finals, while the fourth and fifth place teams advance to the play-offs for the final two spots. In total, each team will play a minimum of 18 and a maximum of 25 games. (Currently the maximum is 13, with the new Champions League format it will be 17).
The participating teams also say they will create a women’s version of the Super League as soon as possible and that they plan to continue playing in domestic leagues such as the Premier League or La Liga.
More important than the format is the fact that the clubs will not participate in the UEFA Champions League, but will share the revenue. This is a big change from the basic model of European team competition in any sport, which is very different from the way American sports work.
Monday is a critical day for UEFA, which must vote on Champions League reform and the implications of a split. FABRIC COFRINI/AFP via Getty Images
Q: How so?
A : Let’s take the NBA as an example. There are 30 teams, and each owner is effectively a shareholder in the league. They distribute revenue and set limits on salaries and luxury taxes to remain profitable. They don’t have to ask permission from USA Basketball or FIBA (the basketball equivalent of FIFA) to do anything.
But in European football, clubs play in national leagues sanctioned by national associations. In England, the Football Association sanctions the Premier League and UEFA is the governing body of which the English Football Association is a member and which organises the competitions for the clubs. Most of the proceeds go back to the clubs, with the rest going to national associations, small clubs and grassroots development.
Q: And do dissident groups have a problem with that?
A : There is no doubt that dissident clubs bring disproportionate profits to the table. After all, more people (and sponsors) pay to see Barcelona against Manchester United than Dinamo Zagreb against Club Brugge. They say they are entitled to a bigger piece of the pie (and they have been for years, and they are becoming more important). But some also question why the revenue they bring in should be redistributed to smaller clubs and the FA. And they say it’s about voting and keeping the money train moving, which is true to some extent. There are more small clubs than big ones, and some of the smaller ones will have a hard time surviving without UEFA money.
Dan Thomas is joined by Craig Burley, Shaka Hislop and others to bring you the latest developments and discuss key storylines. Streaming on ESPN+ (US only).
Some dissenting clubs also believe that they could be more flexible and innovative in generating more revenue if they hosted competitions themselves, for example by playing at weekends or travelling to Asia or North America. After all, these are global brands.
I think it’s a question of whether you see the football club primarily as a business that needs to be developed and make as much profit as possible, or whether you see yourself as part of a greater whole, with an obligation of solidarity to others. From my point of view, the first is short-sighted. After all, the next big star for Real Madrid or Manchester United could come from Moldova or Northern Ireland, but if the FA doesn’t work in those countries because the funding for the base has been cut, well…
However, the statement expressed confidence that the Super League would bring much greater economic growth to football and also provide sustainable solidarity payments, far in excess of those currently generated by European competition. They expect up to €10 billion in initial commitments from clubs.
Q: Ok, so they’re ready to share….
A : Well, that’s a little vague. First, they don’t tell you how long the initial commitment period actually is. It is clear that 10 billion euros in 10 years is not the same as 10 billion euros in 50 years. Second, if you compare it to what UEFA calls solidarity payments – the money UEFA gives to clubs to invest in youth or community development – the amount was €227 million in 2019-20. But of course, UEFA also keeps some €160 million for European football (by its own admission), and of the €2.05 billion in prize money for the Champions League, another €60 million goes to subsidies for the Europa League and relegated clubs in qualifying for the Champions League.
Add to that the fact that the Champions League has 32 teams, the Super League will have 20. The 12 lowest earning clubs in the Champions League together earned around €200 million; they will of course be excluded from the Super League. By that definition, the Champions League is worth about €650 million if you’re not in the top 20.
It is also unclear how the Super League plans to distribute this solidarity money.
Q: So what happens on Monday?
A : UEFA president Alexander Zeferin has two options. A vote on Champions League reform is on the agenda. Maybe he’ll give in and take the case off the agenda. This could raise tempers and possibly lead to further negotiations with the big clubs – this time probably without ACE, as we saw how far it went last time – and maybe more concessions in their favour, maybe more revenue sharing or direct control of the league or guaranteed places or something.
In fact, Super League’s own statement suggests that it is willing to sit down and talk with UEFA to achieve better results for both the new league and football in general, which in turn suggests that it is willing to make a deal.
Or Seferin can stand firm and take them at their word. Adopt the format of the Champions League, call it by its name. They have issued a joint statement with the English, Spanish and Italian football federations, as well as the Premier League, the Italian Serie A and the Spanish La Liga, stating that they will act in unison to put an end to a cynical project based on the vested interests of a few clubs. And they reminded everyone of what FIFA had said, that players playing in a breakaway European Super League would be barred from participating in FIFA competitions, including the World Cup.
Read all the latest news and reactions from ESPN FC editor Gabriele Marcotti.
Q: Wow, that’s extreme. So if, say, Manchester United goes bankrupt, they can’t play in the Premier League, FA Cup or League Cup?
A : Theoretically, yes. You have the right to do that, even though it will probably end up in court. There is a legal argument that as a governing body and organiser of a competition (which FIFA, UEFA and the FA are) you cannot exclude anyone. This part remains to be seen. But I think their best strategy, if they want to stop it, is to wait. ….
Q: What do you mean?
A : For starters, even if 2022 was a first qualifying season, I don’t see how they could do it. Even if they are not expelled from the national leagues, the clubs must overcome a number of legal and regulatory hurdles.
Janusz Michalik explains how the European Super League will threaten the survival of the Champions League.
Clubs such as Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern and Borussia Dortmund (the two German clubs have not signed up for this, but a break-up without them is hard to imagine) would be the target of members’ votes. Rumor has it they have a lot of financial backing – and in fact their statement says the 15 founders will distribute 3.5 billion exclusively to support their infrastructure investments and offset the impact of the COWID pandemic, which means someone with deep pockets is writing them a big check – and a global broadcast deal (not ESPN), but will it be enough to offset potential short-term losses?
In general, I don’t know if the fans closest to the clubs – the people who go to the games week after week – are into it.
Q: But isn’t the game global?
A : True, but the reality is that clubs derive more revenue from the creatures of habit who flock to the stadium every week than from the equally passionate fans who are halfway to the stadium. In Germany, and especially in England, the opposite is true.
The stadiums are now closed, but fans will be back before the end of the season, for example at Old Trafford. The Glazers are not very popular there, imagine if their own fans let them know what they think of this idea. It’s the look that counts. If the corrupt owners can’t convince them that it’s not about personal greed, they will have a very hard time.
I leave you with this quote published today by Sir Alex Ferguson, a man whose credentials at Manchester United are beyond reproach: Talking about a Super League is a far cry from 70 years of European club football. Both player of Dunfermline’s county team in the 1960s and manager of Aberdeen who won the European Cup Winners’ Cup.
For a small provincial club in Scotland, it was like climbing Mount Everest. Everton are spending £500m to build a new stadium with Champions League aspirations. Fans around the world love the game for what it is.
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