The World v. The European Super League
Whether you realize it or not, we all dodged a bullet this week.
A big one.
When the 12 clubs meant to be founding members of the European Super League (pause for groans) announced that they'd be moving forward with their plans over the weekend, there was immediate outrage. Fans came out in droves to protest outside of stadium grounds, a stark and haunting image in the midst of a Premier League season where they still aren't permitted inside the stadiums on match days. That idea, of the game continuing on whether the fans are present or not, is darkly emblematic of what the Super League represented during its brief existence.
A note here: I am fully in favor of the Premier League's caution in allowing fans back into matches. When there's a global pandemic still threatening their livelihoods, it's all right to keep fans at a safe distance.
When you're deciding the future of their club, and indeed the future of the entire sport, it is not.
Here's a grossly-oversimplified explanation of what's already come and gone: 12 teams, six from England, three from Spain, and three from Italy, all from the biggest cities in those respective countries, wanted to break away and form their own competition. They would continue to play in their domestic leagues on weekends, while this competition would take place in the middle of the week, similar to the way that international club competitions like the Champions League do now. Each founding member would be allowed a permanent spot in the competition, while other clubs from around Europe would be allowed in on a rotating basis based on their performance.
The pros (for the clubs involved, anyway) were pretty easy to see: an enormous increase in revenue for each club, backed initially by a multiple-billion-dollar loan from JP Morgan. There would be no qualification for or relegation from this league, meaning that much of the uncertainty that surrounds club ownership at the moment would be minimized. We'd get matchups between Europe's most elite teams (read: the ones that have players like Messi and Ronaldo on them) nearly every week, instead of every few months or years.
Those were the main pros. As you can see, the list is pretty short.
Now for the cons.
This league threatened the very fabric of club competitions around the continent. Normally, how a team finishes in their domestic league determines whether or not they qualify for other competitions. For instance, West Ham United, a club that is not historically one of England's powerhouses, is currently in fifth in the Premier League, which would qualify them for their first European competition since 2016. They're ahead of Superleague teams like Liverpool, Arsenal, and (sighs) Tottenham, a state of affairs that no one outside of East London could have envisioned before the season began. Here's why that's important: because the Superleague would effectively neuter any other major competition around Europe, in that reality, West Ham's season wouldn't really matter. Sure, they'd qualify, but for what? A competition that's been completely nerfed by clubs that they've objectively outperformed?
That's just where the issues start. This is the first real, existential threat to England's top league since the transition from the First Division to the Premier League back in the early 90's. In this case, just like that one, the teams at the top seek a bigger chunk of the money that they, to be fair, do generate a disproportionate amount of. This isn't coming from the teams themselves, though. Players and managers from across all the leagues involved, in fact, have come out against the plans. No, this is coming from a lot higher up.
John Henry. Roman Abramovich. Daniel Levy. Stan Kroenke. Florentino Perez. The Glazer family.
These are the men driving this decision: the owners.
And why wouldn't they? In America, we have closed leagues, which means that each team is a permanent member of the league it's in; they can't be relegated, and they each get an equal share of the league's revenue. It's a true franchise model, and from a business perspective, it's incredibly appealing. Especially in a league like the NFL or NBA, franchise values have ballooned over the past 15-20 years because the assets themselves literally don't depreciate. There will always be a more lucrative TV deal waiting around the corner; if you can hold the line for 10-15 years, you can sell that asset for double or triple what you paid for it initially. Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokorov bought 80 percent of the Nets for $200 million in 2010, and then, not even an entire decade later, sold them for over a billion. Donald Sterling was maybe the worst owner (and human?) in the history of sports, and yet, he sold the Clippers for two billion. That's what the power of asset security can do for you: a near-guarantee on making a profit. A big one.
And that, in a nutshell, is what the (largely American) contingent of owners were trying to do with the Superleague: terraform the European soccer landscape to more closely resemble the franchise model in the US. It's more stable. It's more profitable. There's no chance that a team can fall short of qualification for a major tournament and miss out on tens or hundreds of millions of dollars from year-to-year. From a business perspective, it's just better.
But it also threatens one of the last vestiges of competitive integrity that we have in the modern world.
I want to take a second and talk about something I've found personally upsetting about all of this. As a depressing percentage of the owners pushing this product are, in fact, American, there has been quite a bit of anti-American sentiment expressed by the British press. These Americans, and by extension all Americans, they feel, don't understand the spirit of their clubs or their leagues. This has been, to put it honestly, very hurtful to hear. I have found that American fans to be as upset as any about the prospect of the cancellation of the Premier League, a competition which, for people like me, has provided a great deal of joy over the short amount of time that we've had full exposure to it. The Superleague poses the biggest threat to what the press calls "match-going fans", which, almost by definition, most Americans are not.
I won't dispute that, but we are real fans, too. And we care about pure, unencumbered competition as much as you all do. That's what's built our biggest leagues, after all. Yankees vs. Red Sox. Lakers vs. Celtics. Bears vs. Packers. The tribal, regional affiliations that supersede economic interest and power a fanbase. That's what's worth fighting for here, that's what's worth saving.
And we are going to have to keep fighting.
This league may have blown up like the Fyre Festival, but it won't be the last attempt. This might have been the "Chamber of Secrets" version of the Superleague, but there are plenty more horcruxes out there in the big, bad world just waiting to be awoken. Too much of the sporting landscape has already been corporatized, but there will always be more for these billionaires to find and claim as their own. We have to be diligent about protecting what's most important, which is the spirit of the competitions themselves, the history of the teams and clubs, and the collective joy we get from participating in all of it.
It can't be the Premier League or the FA or UEFA vs. The Superleague next time. It failed to get off the ground this time because the clubs eventually found religion after heavy public backlash, but in the future, that might not be enough.
No one can sit it out.
It has to be the entire sporting world.