Setting up a super league

By J Hutcherson (Jan 21, 2020) US Soccer Players - I've been working in soccer since the late 1990s. For most of that time, the idea of a breakaway European Super League has been background noise. Occasionally, the volume gets louder, but it eventually fades out. That can happen courtesy of UEFA doing something with the Champions League or the idea simply not taking hold. There have been enough almost breakaways to suggest a trend. European soccer's governing body gives the clubs enough to keep them in check and the games continue as scheduled.

That may not change. Predicting the imminent arrival of a super league was already a cliche back in the 90s. There's almost always a plan, a group of teams, or a motivated investor. Then reality sets in and European club soccer as we know it stays in place. That's the safest possible bet, that nothing fundamental shifts.

UEFA may change the format of the Champions League, but ultimately they determine the scope of the highest level of European club soccer. That's their job, and they've gotten good at doing just enough adjusting to keep it. Of course, it helps that the Champions League is so valuable. As much as it might push clubs to wonder how much they could make in a league of their own, it also puts a real number on what they might be giving up should things go wrong.

If the moneymaking capability of a breakaway European super league were a multiple of what UEFA is dividing, it would've happened already. That's the safest of all assumptions. Clubs will act in their own best interests sooner than later. UEFA turned the European Cup into the Champions League for the 1992-93 season. The next set of changes are currently under discussion for the next TV deal starting in 2022. That will mark 30 years of UEFA figuring out what they need to do to buy another television contract's worth of cohesion. Well, assuming the big clubs don't finally break away.

The thing about the super league is that it makes sense in theory. It's the practice that has had so many plans and ideas never turn European club soccer into something else.

Setting aside the current political issues between Britain and Europe, there's always been a British problem when it comes to any super league. It's reserving too many spots for British clubs. Three from London, two each from Liverpool, Manchester, and Glasgow. All of a sudden, half of an 18-team league is from the UK. That's not likely to happen, but it doesn't stop the insistence that all of those clubs merit inclusion. They don't, but there's more to it than simply knocking out the Glasgow duo because they play in the wrong Premier League.

Any design for a super league can't avoid geography anymore than they can overlook competitive history. Though it's probably a safe assumption that someone at sometime pitched a super league that didn't bring in existing clubs, Europe isn't about franchise club soccer. That history will hold, even if it's reformed under a new league setup.

In 2000, a group of the major European clubs formed the G-14 lobbying group. At the time, many saw that as a shadow super league, waiting for the announcement that they were breaking away. There were two English teams involved, Manchester United and Liverpool. No Arsenal who finished ahead of Liverpool the previous season. No Chelsea, who finished 5th to Liverpool's 4th. No Spurs, 10th in 1999-2000. Certainly, no Manchester City, promoted from the First Division at the end of that season.

La Liga, Ligue 1, the Bundesliga, and the Eredivisie each had two members, and you could probably guess them. Marseille rather than Lyon and Feyenoord over PSV, but otherwise, it makes sense. Serie A was in with three, both Milan clubs and Juventus. Benfica was the other team. In 2002, they added Arsenal, Valencia, Lyon, and Bayer Leverkusen. At 18 members, the G-14 had the framework for a super league. It's easy enough then and now to argue about those third teams from Spain, France, and Germany, but the idea is the same. No over-representation from any country, along with ignoring some of the major metro markets.

That footprint issue used to loom large over MLS. Expansion and doubling down in the two largest markets in the United States solved that for the most part. Fill in the map using the largest metro markets as the guide. It's the same playbook for all pro team sports in North America.

Europe is no different in theory. There are good reasons to put super league clubs in places like Birmingham, even if none of the clubs in the West Midlands have any competitive business in a super league. It's the same reason to include Berlin, Athens, and Vienna. The big markets fuel interest in the league. It' easy enough to see the benefit in making sure as many major markets are part of a super league as possible, especially if those markets are lucrative.

The G-14 ignored places like Birmingham, Berlin, Frankfurt, and Rome in favor of the obvious soccer capitals of Europe. That included both AC and Inter Milan, an interesting scenario for the current era of soccer. How does any super league not include both Manchester clubs, with United 3rd in Deloitte's recent money league and City 6th? A super league is about maximizing revenue for super clubs, after all. There are four Premier League clubs in the top 10 for making money.

It's not lost on any of the other European giants that the Premier League clubs are, on average, worth more than any of the other leagues. Still, adjusting values for the Premier League bump isn't likely to send any of those four crashing out of the top 20. There are three more Premier League clubs in the bottom half of Deloitte's top 20 table. It's hard to imagine a super league making a serious case for West Ham and Everton, but money matters here. So does prestige, with the usual suspects once again lining up in their own best interest.

What that means is a super league that looks a lot like what you'd expect. It's the same massive European soccer clubs turned into global brands. UEFA already provided the shorthand version by giving the top four domestic leagues in Europe four group stage spots in the Champions League. With some room for surprises, that's normally going to be the bulk of the 16 most valuable clubs in Europe. What's no surprise are the rumors that those clubs would like UEFA to all but close off the Champions League with their next revamp.

Right now, what we're seeing is a situation where those elite teams have worked hard over two decades to set up a de facto super league. It's the Champions League as they see it, reserved for the elites without significant upheaval from season-to-season. If the clubs get what they want out of UEFA, what's the point of breaking away? That's certainly the question UEFA is asking right now, even if the answer will always be the same. It's whatever the magic number is between what UEFA is able to distribute to the elite clubs and what those clubs believe they could make running things themselves.

J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at jhutcherson@usnstpa.com.

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Photo by Hollandse-Hoogte via ZUMA Press

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