European Super League - Not So Super?
The recent announcement by the chairmen of the proposed European Super League (ESL) that it had agreed with twelve of Europe's leading football clubs to establish a new, independent, privately funded football league, against the express wishes of FIFA and UEFA, shocked and stunned many across the northern continent. In fact, the condemnation of the planned new league was so widespread that six of the twelve football clubs to sign up to the scheme rescinded their commitment only two days later. And, by day three, the total number of withdrawals had risen to nine. The new league is now, in its current proposed format at least, in serious danger of collapse and certainly doesn't look quite as super as its leaders had hoped.
What is the European Super League?
The proposed Super League is an annual tournament, running from August to May, featuring Europe's traditional footballing powerhouses in a partially closed competition. According to the ESL board, the league would be played over midweek fixtures and run concurrently alongside domestic and national competitions, in which member teams would continue to compete.
The new league would see 20 teams contesting the competition each year. Fifteen of the competing clubs would be 'founding members' who would be guaranteed their place in the competition indefinitely. The final five spots would be decided via a secondary competition, yet to be publicised but thought to be the winners of Europe's national leagues.
Of the fifteen founding members, twelve were announced in ESL's statement on April 18th - Italian sides AC Milan, Inter Milan and Juventus, Spanish clubs Atletico Madrid, Barcelona and Real Madrid and English teams Arsenal Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur. The final three founding members are yet to be revealed.
Each season the twenty teams would be drawn into two groups of ten for a round-robin of home and away matches. The top three clubs from each group would progress to the quarter-finals. The fourth and fifth teams would play a two-legged playoff to decide the two final spots. From that point, the competition format would follow a two-legged knockout format to the final.
The tournament would ensure that top tier teams are pitted against each other on a more frequent basis than current European competitions allow. It would also remove the need for football's giants to compete against lower-ranked clubs on their way to the finals, as per the UEFA Champions League.
With Europe's titans facing off more often, the financial gains through global broadcasting rights and sponsorships would be phenomenal. In addition to the deals agreed between the league's financiers and the clubs involved - to join the group and for each competition they compete in - the set-up would undoubtedly be very lucrative.
However, as profitable as the new tournament would be for Europe's top squads, and aside from the benefits to fans worldwide who will see their heroes clash more regularly, the proposed league faces substantial opposition.
Since the ESL's statement of intent was released on the 18th, criticism of the plans has been deafening. FIFA, UEFA, English and European football associations, clubs and leagues have condemned the scheme, with the governing bodies suggesting that clubs and players involved would be banned from participating in all other domestic and international competitions, including the World Cup. Current and ex-players, pundits, managers and coaches across Europe have all denounced the league. British fans have been almost riotous. Even government figures in France and England have called for measures to block the league. And, to top off the list of aggrieved parties, the players and managers of the clubs who have already signed up to the ESL have joined together in petitioning for the cessation of the new league.
As a result of the seemingly wholesale opposition, by the evening of April 20th, the cracks in the newly formed ESL had begun - statements from Manchester City and Chelsea FC confirmed their withdrawal from the league. Under continuous pressure from fans, managers, coaches and players, and under the threat of being banned from football association leagues and tournaments, the other four English league teams, Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur, and all three Italian clubs, followed suit.
European Super League S.W.O.T. Analysis
To present a balanced view of the ESL, the following provides an analysis of the proposed new competition's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats:
Many top-flight European football clubs currently feel that existing continental competitions do not offer enough opportunity to play against other top tier clubs and that the associated financial return for 'big' matches is not being realised. Games between the giants of football, especially at some of the biggest and most popular club competitions, generate the most money. Through ticketing, sponsorship, broadcasting and streaming, prize money for big games is worth fighting for, and participation in those matches brings in the big bucks. However, victory for the elite clubs isn't guaranteed, nor is entry into the most lucrative competitions such as the UEFA Champions League. Traditional association football is an undecided competition where clubs must play through the ranks to claim victory. It's a game of jeopardy, the consequence of which is an unsteady revenue that clubs must manage year upon year.
Under the ESL proposal, where Europe's top clubs are guaranteed to play one another every season, attracting and monopolising fans and sponsors and broadcasters, annual incomes become more stable, and each club's value rises. And, with fewer clubs involved in the competition, the proceeds to be distributed are far heftier - the Super League winning prize pot alone is over double that of the pot available to the Champions League winner.
It is easy to see why Europe's elite clubs have gravitated towards the scheme. A predictable business model makes financial sense, especially during the current coronavirus pandemic when clubs are haemorrhaging money.
By creating a partially closed competition, where the main players of European football clash on a much more frequent basis, the ESL is in danger of devaluing the prestige these clubs currently enjoy. Surely, the more often we see something spectacular, the less remarkable it becomes. And, surely for the players themselves, the uncertainty that comes with knowing a team may rise and fall depending on performance is what drives players to train harder, play better and fight with more intensity on the pitch. In a closed competition with no fear of relegation and no rebuke, regardless of whether a team performs poorly or is badly managed, surely that drive and challenge to be the best is diminished. How long before the competition becomes hum-drum as players become lackadaisical? It would be a tournament based on status, not merit. The effort and the grind and the uncertainty that make football compelling would be destroyed for fans and players alike.
In addition, more matches between the big guns, and more often, means more away games. Though many fans already fly to watch their teams perform, the proposed league would push the number of trips far higher, creating even more expense - for the common man (or woman), that might just be too much. While fans on a global scale would be catered for through broadcasting and streaming options, those that love to follow their clubs, take to the stands and be part of the stadium atmosphere could have that option taken away from them. Anyone watching matches during the covid pandemic will know that empty stadiums, or even partially filled stadiums, annihilates the game's atmosphere, which can affect player performance. The competition could end up extremely dull and with all the ambience of a house party for one.
ESL chairman and Real Madrid owner Florentino Pérez has reportedly told the press that football is at a critical point. Saying that social media has changed fans behaviour, he believes that young people are no longer interested in the game in its current form - too many matches are of poor quality. Indeed, the new super league bosses cite the declining value of live media - due to an institutional failure to adapt to the needs of fans and the changing scope of entertainment requirements - as one of the main reasons for forming a breakaway league. They have argued that the football industry must give fans what they want - the world's best players and top tier clubs going head to head throughout the year - to save the sport.
The proposed Super League format would definitely bring the biggest and the best together more often, and serve to create a more worldwide appeal than some current European competitions. And, the ESL reportedly promises to continually evolve and incorporate new ideas into the competition from “changes in live match distribution formats, technology-enhanced rule implementation and player development”. So, the proposal sounds as though worldwide audiences would benefit - more of what they want, more frequently and, apparently, more dynamically. But, at what cost?
In a closed competition that generates more money than current continental competitions (namely the UEFA Champions League), that provides guaranteed incomes and no threat of relegation, the clubs involved would have their eyes on the more lucrative prize. Their position and standing in domestic and continental club competitions would have less worth. Ultimately, clubs would be distracted, domestic and continental events would undoubtedly see reserve teams being played rather than first teams, saved for the Super League. The result, unbalanced and severely diminished tournaments. Similarly, if the football association's governing bodies succeeded in banning ESL participants, the value of domestic and continental leagues and competitions would be seriously diluted without the big names. The race to the top would be less meaningful or significant. In both scenarios, the ESL's top-tier clubs have substantial global appeal. They would have the capacity to draw audiences, broadcasters and sponsors away from the various other European leagues and tournaments - reducing access to the associated revenue. The game's current pyramid structure, whereby funds and revenue generated by tournaments and competitions trickle down and support lower league clubs and grassroots football, would also be brutally weakened - threatening the very foundations of the game.
Another threat anticipated by the new league's formation would be the ramifications on traditional association football across Europe. For over 150 years, football has been based on open competitive competitions with promotion and relegation and possible qualification to bigger tournaments, all part of the drive to be better than the next team. Association football is held aloft as a sport where any club could compete at the highest level through hard work and determination. Players and fans' dreams are built on this tradition - who can forget when Leicester City won the English Premier League against all odds. Players, managers and coaches live to beat the best at the top of their leagues and qualify for the most prestigious competitions. Closing off the path to the top, either by nullifying current tournaments, or removing the best players and teams from the equation and providing such small odds for clubs to join them (only five qualifying spots are available in the Super League), would instantly pour water on the ambitions and dreams that drive the industry.
The Downfall of The ESL?
In its current form, it seems that the ESL serves only those who join the scheme and will benefit financially and the global audience who want to see the big names clash regularly but have no emotional or historical ties to European football.
By ignoring and underestimating the importance of tradition, European supporters' passion for the game and the foundations of association football that bring the sport to all, the ESL may have made a grave mistake. In addition, potentially ending the international careers of players whose clubs have signed up to the new league without their agreement (if FIFA bans occurred, players would no longer be able to play for their countries), the ESL has unwittingly disgruntled its own workforce. By alienating supporters, players, managers, coaches and even governments, the ESL may have contributed to its own downfall.
Whether the newly formed league will survive nine of its members dropping out or whether it will take on board the undeniably candid feedback and reformat its offering remains to be seen. But the Super League's chairmen might do well to remember that at the heart of football are its supporters, not club owners, and the main driver of the sport is a love of the game, not money.
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