On the possibilities of a European Super League

The BBC have reported (http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/37168955) a statement by Alexander Ceferin, President of the Slovenian FA, and a candidate for the Presidency of UEFA now that Platini has had to vacate that role, that

“Any move to form a breakaway super league involving Europe’s top sides would lead to “war” between the clubs and Uefa” and is “out of the question”.

He goes on

“My firm opinion is that some kind of closed super league with just a few clubs in, without the possibility for the others to enter, is out of the question. It will mean a kind of war between Uefa and the clubs. If they want more revenues we should work on it. It is possible. The Champions League is the best sports product in the world, for sure. But it doesn’t generate the most money. So we should include them [the clubs] more.”

The BBC treats this at face value – if Ceferin is elected, and he has 20 nominations from member Associations, so at getting on for half of the 54 who is to say he won’t be – then there would be no super league.

There are I think two faults in this confident forecast.

First while Ceferin is right in that it would be a direct challenge to the authority of UEFA, a breakaway would lead to a war. But before saying it is “out of the question” we might do well to consider which side might win, and why. As Ceferin says in the second half of the quote “If they want more revenues” – do they ever – then the biggest clubs need to think about how best they might achieve this, and I am sure they are giving that a lot of thought. A super league would after all allow for higher ticket prices. There would be more opportunity for corporate entertainment, again at higher prices than they enjoy just now. However, the major variable, and the one that everyone pays primary attention to, is television. Right now, the king of the hill in that regard is the English Premiership. As the BBC report says,

“The Premier League’s new £9bn TV deal is one of the main reasons why European sides are so keen to see change.”

However, the Premiership has an Achilles heel. There are clubs in the Premiership which could easily be described as “global brands”, including Manchester United and Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea. Probably Tottenham and Liverpool as well, with West Ham and Everton as the next in line? Leicester in the future, perhaps, but one swallow does not …… etc. These are clubs for whom pay to view will always be interested, so the match between Arsenal and Liverpool on the first Sunday of the Premiership was always going to be attractive to TV. Perhaps Chelsea and West Ham as well, the following Monday. But Bournemouth and Manchester United, surely less so. And, unless you are from the North East of England, it’s unlikely that Sunderland and Middlesbrough was particularly enticing.

We can go through the season like this – games between any of the eight clubs identified as “global brands” will always be attractive to pay to view. Less attractive, but still with some pulling power, are games between those eight and the others. However, how often does television get landed with games between the other twelve clubs, which will have little attraction for them?

So far, however, TV has been able to do little about this. But imagine a European Super League, over an entire season. Let’s suppose it features the following eighteen clubs – Arsenal, Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Tottenham, Liverpool, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Athletico Madrid, Valencia, Milan, Juventus, Napoli Bayern Munich, Dortmund, Paris St Germain, Marseilles, Lyon. There is lots of scope to argue about whether these would be THE 18 clubs – for instance would there really be six clubs from England? But the point to be taken from that is that it is difficult to perm any two of these clubs without coming up with a game that TV would not value highly. There would be no “duff” weekends with such as Burnley playing West Brom. There would not only not be a duff weekend, but rather the difficulty for any TV station would be how to schedule all of the games of this league every weekend. If the Premiership contract is worth £9 billion, with “makeweight” matches many weekends, what value would the TV contract be for a league with no “less attractive” matches?

We are therefore looking at a TV deal which is some multiple of 9 billion. This would clearly be attractive for the non-English clubs who are currently in deals worth less than this. But if the English clubs were offered even more TV money than they get just now would that not be attractive to them? Could UEFA ever organize something like this? I rather suspect not, unless they could find a way to keep the “lesser” clubs happy.

Thus the weakness of the Premiership is that while it has its share of “superstars”, not all of its clubs – worthy as they all are – can be described in this way. A move away for the “superstars” has to be a possibility, just as the Premiership cut itself loose from the Football League when they realised they could do better for themselves by moving across to the FA which has singularly been incapable of controlling them. Just as the Football League was cast adrift, this would mean casting the “extras” in the Premiership adrift – such as Bournemouth, Southampton, West Brom, Sunderland etc.

Where would TV find the money though? It’s not like it’s a bottomless pit and sooner or later the armchair footie fan is going to say “enough”. But, if Arsenal, Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Tottenham and Liverpool are no longer in the Premiership then what value does its TV contract have? Certainly much less than it is now. Moreover, it is likely that the deal would be done not by a single TV company in the way of Sky with the Premiership, but by a consortium of pay TV companies including Sky, BT, Canal + etc.

But what about the players? One of the consequences of a player with any of the clubs in a Super League without UEFA endorsement would be that they could no longer play for their national sides. I am not suggesting that players are not patriotic, but imagine the conversation “Leo, we want you to sign a new contract. This will pay you 25% more than we pay you now, but you won’t be able to play in the World Cup or Copa America”. Sorry, 25% more dosh and getting a rest every summer! What’s not to like. Who knows, he might even pay his taxes?

So the war, is eminently possible, and without their superstar clubs and most of the best players, how long could UEFA hold out? How long – as with the Kerry Packer Cricket Circus forty years ago – could they hold out? This leads to the second point, that we need to read Ceferin’s statement very carefully, and in particular when he says “My firm opinion is that some kind of closed super league with just a few clubs in, without the possibility for the others to enter, is out of the question”. The key word here is “closed”. I have set out 18 hypothetical member clubs. Ceferin’s problem seems to be that the lack of a possibility for others to move on up to that league. For instance, there will certainly be clubs with the ambition who are not in that list – Espanyol, Villareal, Seville, Werder Bremen, etc Then there are the biggest clubs from the smaller countries – Porto, Ajax, not to mention Celtic.

If we put this construction on Ceferin’s statement, and add to that the biggest clubs recently putting Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Gianni Agnelli up to call for the creation of a super-league (and you don’t put guys like that in to argue for you if you don’t really mean it) then perhaps the principle has already been conceded and the only issue is whether the League would be closed or whether there would be some form of promotion and relegation. Either way, the future may not be all that far off.