Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

American Sports Logic Created Soccer’s Failed Super League

The commercial reasoning was sound—but the culture clash doomed plans.

By , the Stephen J. Galetti professor of sport management at the University of Michigan.
Leeds United fans hold a banner against plans for a European Super League and the involvement of the Liverpool football club outside Elland Road stadium in Leeds, northern England, on April 19.
Leeds United fans hold a banner against plans for a European Super League and the involvement of the Liverpool football club outside Elland Road stadium in Leeds, northern England, on April 19. Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images

Three weeks ago, I wrote that the “soccer system is fragile not because clubs are insolvent but because a cartel of big clubs could credibly break away and reorganize along the lines of the American model. In Europe this threat has been present since the 1980s, and it periodically resurfaces under the name of a ‘superleague.’”

That scheme resurfaced once again last week in the guise of an agreement with 12 of Europe’s biggest clubs to create a European Super League (ESL) of 20 clubs. The 15 founding clubs—the original 12 plus three others (they wanted Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, and Paris Saint-Germain to join, but they refused)—would have guaranteed membership without having to qualify through their national championship on sporting merit, as is the case for the UEFA Champions League, the current equivalent.

Qualification on sporting merit through the system of promotion and relegation is the norm across the entire European soccer league system. The scheme provoked a torrent of outrage from fans, politicians, and sporting pundits—in fact almost the entire population of the continent. The backlash was so fierce that the clubs meekly abandoned the project only 48 hours after announcing it.

Three weeks ago, I wrote that the “soccer system is fragile not because clubs are insolvent but because a cartel of big clubs could credibly break away and reorganize along the lines of the American model. In Europe this threat has been present since the 1980s, and it periodically resurfaces under the name of a ‘superleague.’”

That scheme resurfaced once again last week in the guise of an agreement with 12 of Europe’s biggest clubs to create a European Super League (ESL) of 20 clubs. The 15 founding clubs—the original 12 plus three others (they wanted Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, and Paris Saint-Germain to join, but they refused)—would have guaranteed membership without having to qualify through their national championship on sporting merit, as is the case for the UEFA Champions League, the current equivalent.

Qualification on sporting merit through the system of promotion and relegation is the norm across the entire European soccer league system. The scheme provoked a torrent of outrage from fans, politicians, and sporting pundits—in fact almost the entire population of the continent. The backlash was so fierce that the clubs meekly abandoned the project only 48 hours after announcing it.

Yet make no mistake, the ESL proposal was based on solid commercial logic. The mere fact that JPMorgan Chase was willing to underwrite it to the tune of 3.25 billion euros ($3.9 billion) tells you that this was no speculative punt—even as the bank is now offering fulsome apologies. There is a huge pent-up demand to see the star players from the top clubs in different countries play against each other—Harry Kane against Kylian Mbappé, Joshua Kimmich against Kevin De Bruyne, Lionel Messi against Mohamed Salah, Neymar against Raheem Sterling. That’s normally only possible at limited events like the World Cup or the Champions League, not on a weekly basis. JPMorgan knew that it could recoup its money easily through the sale of global TV rights.

This is the fundamental problem with which European soccer has been struggling since the creation of UEFA, the European governing body, in 1954 precisely for the purpose of establishing a soccer competition for clubs from different European nations. This competition began as the European Cup, played among 16 champions from national leagues, and has evolved into the Champions League, which involves more than 60 teams if you include the qualifying rounds and a format designed to enable the top clubs from different countries to come up against each other with more frequency.

If we take the 12 would-be founders of the ESL, for example, the teams from different countries met in the Champions League 90 times in the past decade, or nine games a season. If the ESL had involved each team playing every other team, once at home and once away, then the foreign teams would have met 90 times in one season—10 times the current average. To give just one example, Manchester United has played both Barcelona and Real Madrid just twice in the last decade. Regardless of sporting merit, it seems hard to argue that there is no existing demand worldwide to see games of this type.

Most soccer fans will grudgingly admit that they can see the commercial logic. Where the project foundered was the abandonment of sporting merit. This is exactly the same issue that sank the earlier Project Big Picture. There, with somewhat more modest changes to the competitive structure of the leagues in England, the big clubs hoped to buy off the smaller clubs, all facing financial ruin due to COVID-19, in exchange for control of and insulation from competition. It took three days for that plan to be scuttled after a vote of the Premier League clubs, rather than the two days it took to sink the ESL. The American owners of Liverpool and Manchester United were behind Project Big Picture, and by all accounts they were closely involved with the ESL proposal—leading to a further gulf between them and the fans who see them as commercial interlopers with no love of the game. So what is surprising is how little they appeared to have learned from the initial debacle.

This really is a clash of mental models. At the time of Project Big Picture, John Henry, the owner of Liverpool, gave an interview in which he expressed his growing dissatisfaction with the structure of competition in soccer and argued that television money and fear of relegation blunted ambition.

I have found the same issue when trying to teach my students at the University of Michigan about promotion and relegation and the structure of league competition in European soccer. Once explained to them, they express puzzlement that it has survived and are adamant that Americans would never stomach it. To an American mindset, why wouldn’t you want to create a new competition with more exciting games and leave the past behind? Don’t look down, look up!

In fairness, the ESL project was not entirely driven by Americans. It was fronted by the Spanish president of Real Madrid, backed by the Russian owner of Chelsea, the British owner of Tottenham Hotspur, and the Emirati owner of Manchester City, among others. But without doubt, the concept was entirely based on the closed league model of sport in the United States.

The ferocity of the protests has demonstrated that the European mindset in relation to sport is completely different. A large part of it may just be a devotion to tradition, but it is also about the commitment to the principle of competition based on sporting merit. No matter how unbalanced the competition might turn out in practice, the principle of equality of opportunity is inviolable. It is hard to think of any other example in recent years of public opinion having such an immediate and decisive effect on a business plan—except perhaps the backlash against New Coke in 1985, where the old recipe was reintroduced just three months later.

Europeans have long moaned about the encroachment of U.S. corporations on European culture, from Euro Disney to Big Macs and Starbucks, but the reality is that Europeans actually like all these things, as their success shows. But over soccer—or perhaps, let’s say football—they’re ready to draw a line in the sand.

Stefan Szymanski is the Stephen J. Galetti professor of sport management at the University of Michigan. He started researching the economics of professional soccer in 1989 and has since written more than 100 peer-reviewed papers and 10 books on sports-related subjects, including the bestseller Soccernomics (with Simon Kuper). His most recent books are It’s Football, Not Soccer (and Vice Versa) (2018) and City of Champions (2020), both co-authored with Silke-Maria Weineck.

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