A Small Group of Billionaires Wants to Americanize European Soccer — And Fans Will Lose Out

As European soccer kicked off on Sunday, rumors began to fly of an impending announcement from 12 of the world’s most powerful soccer clubs revealing plans to form a new midweek competition, the European Super League (ESL).

My two favorite teams, Manchester United in England and Atletico de Madrid in Spain, both won important games in their fights at the top of their respective leagues, but there was little time to enjoy the victories as late Sunday evening, far later than was rumored, the official announcement was made, and both of my clubs showed up on the list of ESL “founding clubs.”

Despite the cowardly timing of the confirmation — with many fans already tucked into bed across Europe — the backlash was immediate and furious. Fans, clubs, former players, leagues and even heads of state lined up to decry the very idea of the competition. On Tuesday evening, as U.K. media outlets began reporting that Chelsea, one of the ESL founding clubs, is preparing to pull out of the league, one can’t help but wonder how much damage has been done, and whether their backing out is the first domino, or another club will simply step up to take their potentially lucrative place.

As the dust begins to settle, two key issues stand out among the complaints levied against the ESL: first, the unabashed greed of the founding clubs who have for years demanded more and more of the shared revenues of their domestic and European leagues. Under the proposed ESL, they’ll now have complete control over all revenue, hoarding most of it themselves while handing out meagre amounts to the leagues and clubs they plan to leave behind.

More seriously to most fans, however, the ESL feels like an attack on the very thing that makes European soccer unique and great.

In European leagues, at the end of each season, the worst teams are replaced by the best teams from the league below. This system of promotion and relegation has always meant that a well-run club, no matter the size, has a chance of playing against Real Madrid in Spain, Juventus in Italy or Liverpool in the U.K. Under the ESL proposal, the 12-soon-to-be-15 founding clubs will be exempt from possible relegation, meaning that no matter how poorly they perform, they’re guaranteed a spot at the richest table in the sport.

Several of the owners of would-be founding clubs are American, and it hasn’t gone unnoticed just how American the ESL looks with the scant information currently available.

Growing up in the U.S., I’ve seen what the American franchise system has meant to most teams — as a Packer fan, I couldn’t be more proud that we don’t fit the mold — and its one of the things that first drew me to European soccer. But Stan Kroenke, owner of a stable of pro sports teams including the now-L.A. Rams and Arsenal, one of the ESL Founding Clubs, clearly believes otherwise. In Europe, Kroenke can’t move Arsenal to make it more profitable, so he’s decided to move the whole league.

Looking at leaked plans obtained by the Financial Times, we can get a better idea of what the founding clubs have in mind. The proposed financial setup for the ESL would be similar to many American leagues, with 32.5% of commercial revenues split among the 15 founding clubs; another 32.5% to all 20 teams including the five spots for invited clubs each year; 20% allocated based on positioning in the final table; and the remaining 15% distributed based on broadcast audience size.

Fans burn a Liverpool replica shirt outside Elland Road against Liverpool’s decision to be included among the Founding Clubs attempting to form a new European Super League.
AP

So, what does that mean for broadcasters? If the UEFA Champions League, the current pan-European club competition that pits the best teams from 32 domestic leagues head to head, and its replacement European Super League are played on the same nights, they will effectively be competing for the same audience, only the ESL would have the 15 highest-drawing clubs playing one another each week, leaving the UEFA Champions League and Europa League with whatever is left.

According to its most recent financial report, UEFA takes in nearly $4 billion a year from media rights across all of its competitions. Broadcast rights made up more than 85% of that total revenue, followed by commercial rights at about 14%, and tickets and hospitality fees at less than 2%.

On BBC Radio’s “World at One,” British broadcaster Kieran Maguire, author of “The Price of Football,” put into context that disparity using Manchester United as an example. The club claims it has more than 1.1 billion fans around the world, but only 70,000 show up on a regular basis to games at Old Trafford. It makes sense then that United would want a bigger piece of the 85% broadcast rights pie that UEFA is cooking, and could get it back handling its own broadcasts in house.

“If Manchester United could get 10% of their fans to pay £2 [$2.80] each to watch a match, then all of a sudden they’re making £200 million [$279 million] for sales of a single match compared to £600 million [$837 million] from sales of a full season,” says Maguire. “They’ve done the sums and think they can turn Manchester United from a very successful club at present which makes reasonable profits for the owners into a cash machine.”

And that may end up being the ESL’s best option, as broadcasters and streaming platforms have come out strongly against the proposed plan.

On Tuesday afternoon, Amazon Prime Video shared a statement saying the company “understands and shares the concerns raised by football fans regarding a breakaway Super League.” Amazon denies any involvement in discussions for the ESL and promises to continue streaming the UEFA Champions League in Germany and Italy, and the Premier League in the U.K.

Ampere Analysis’ Guy Bisson was sheepish on the prospects of any major U.S.-based platform diving in the deep end on sports streaming with the proposed ESL.

“I don’t believe a U.S.-based streamer would get into streaming major sports like this in Europe. They would do it in their home market, the market they understand. Especially on this scale where we are talking billions,” says Bisson. “Maybe a streamer would start with a smaller sport, like Amazon did with tennis, but not like this.”

Sticking with the U.S. model, Omdia’s Maria Rua explains that, “All the U.S. sports leagues have their own channels, but they also have TV deals and direct-to-consumer sports pass services. The TV channels never have exclusive rights. Football clubs all have their own channels — both on traditional pay TV and online — and they already stream live matches, usually youth teams, pre-season friendlies etc.”

For most fans, however, where the games will be seen is of little concern. Most supporters of the 12 breakaway clubs have had their trust perhaps irreparably broken, while those who follow other teams are left with real concerns about the future of their own teams, their leagues and the game as they’ve always loved it.

James Corden, expressing the feelings of so many fans around the world, said it best: “They bought into a sport that so many of us live for at 3 p.m. on a Saturday and they took it, and they are going to crush it without ever thinking about the damage that’s being done.”

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