By J Hutcherson (Jan 21, 2020) US Soccer Players - The financial realities for clubs outside of the top European leagues are well known. There's a low ceiling on what any of them can earn from broadcast and sponsorship rights, limiting what they can do against the clubs from the bigger leagues. Ajax making it to the semifinals of last season's Champions League was both outlier and throwback. A once upon a time giant of Europe now playing the role of spoiler. The end result was no surprise, with the current squad nothing like last year's version.
It's also no surprise that the clubs caught in this situation would like it to change. Combining leagues to strengthen the competition and the business is not a new idea. An Atlantic league of clubs from multiple countries drew interest in the early 2000s. The basic concept was a small-scale super league of clubs not in the top four leagues in Europe.
The immediate hurdle then and now is sanctioning. FIFA isn't receptive to multinational leagues without a strong reason. Welsh clubs play in England due to history. Canadian teams play in MLS due to the lack of a fully-funded alternative when that league expanded. There was once a joint women's league in Belgium and the Netherlands due to the lack of clubs. If FIFA allowed a multi-country league without extenuating circumstances, there's not a lot stopping other clubs from joining together in their own best interest.
France's Ligue 1, for instance, would be caught between the three bigger leagues in Europe and new competition from an Atlantic League. At the same time, there's the need to consider what happens to clubs left behind in those Atlantic League countries. Their well being may not be the primary consideration for the clubs looking for a higher level of competition, but those voices count. The Atlantic League idea never really went away. Like the super league, it hangs around as an obvious solution to an ongoing problem. At least it's a problem for the clubs that want more.
Now, it's a subset of the Atlantic League pushing forward with a plan of their own. Enter the BeneLiga, a joint league of Belgian and Dutch clubs. The Belgian Pro League and the Eredivisie have the same problem as the rest of the proposed Atlantic League membership. A handful of teams are too big for their domestic leagues but unable to generate the money to regularly compete with the elite of Europe. That means top heavy domestic leagues with smaller clubs making up the numbers.
Belgium has four topflight teams playing in stadiums with a listed capacity of less than 10,000. The Netherlands has three. That's just one indicator of the difference between the top clubs and the rest, but it's also a driver for something different. Why not merge the two leagues caught between the Bundesliga and Ligue 1 and change their economic and competitive reality?
How much of a change is an open question, but the safe assumption is that a BeneLiga is worth more to the elite clubs than their current situation. According to reports, Belgian clubs Anderlecht, Club Brugge, AA Gent, RC Genk, and Standard Liege from Belgium and Ajax, AZ, Feyenoord, PSV, Utrecht, and Vitesse Arnhem from the Eredivisie are the drivers for a BeneLiga. It's no surprise that the biggest clubs in the region would be interested in the plan. Anderlecht, Club Brugge, Standard Liege, Ajax, Feyenoord, and PSV where the proposed Belgian and Dutch entrants for the Atlantic League two decades ago. Other than Dutch club Twente emerging and then collapsing, not a lot has changed in those leagues in recent years.
FC Twente is worth a mention. Bankrupt coming out of the 2002-03 season, they won the Eredivisie in 2009-10 before running into another set of financial problems that led to their relegation in 2018. Twente represents the city of Enschede, next to the German border with a metro population of around 315,000 people to draw from if you're being exceedingly generous.
What Twente represents is the ambition problem in the Eredivisie. Unless you're drawing from the region that includes Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and Den Haag, it's a struggle. AZ is an example of how difficult that can be even if you're closer to the population centers. ADO Den Haag wasn't on the list of clubs involved in the BeneLiga meetings even though it's in the administrative capital. What it isn't is easily accessible, another problem for clubs in both leagues that struggle with broader appeal. Add in the club card system required to buy tickets to some Eredivisie games, and even the bigger clubs run into marketing problems.
It's easy enough to look at both of the existing leagues and play spot the problems. Whether or not a joint league solves them isn't a given. There's not considerable cross border appeal with even the major clubs. There's also not a huge amount of people who opt for the Bundesliga or Ligue 1. The Pro League and Eredivisie struggle economically from those rival leagues, but it's not a situation where trains full of fans help fill the stadiums at German and French clubs just across the border. Ajax, Feyenoord, and PSV don't need help getting people to come to their games. The problem is the broader appeal that turns clubs into global brands and increases broadcast rights and sponsorship.
The Atlantic League idea solved that by including Scotland, Portugal, and Scandinavia. Though how that league would've worked with the Scandinavian winter is a good question, in concept it should've pushed some of those clubs into Europe's upper tier. The combined marketing power of a league with seven countries alone would've almost guaranteed that. It's tough to argue that the same is true with combining Belgian and Dutch clubs.
It's also tough to see where this might lead. A stronger BeneLiga replacing the Pro League and Eredivisie is a problem for the other leagues. That includes Ligue1. France is the fourth biggest league in Europe, but there's a substantial difference between their situation and the money circulating through the Premier League, La Liga, and Serie A. Ligue 1's primary concern is keeping their status and the Champions League group stage places that come with it. Any threat is real.
Then there's soccer's bureaucracy. The Atlantic League never reached the point of needing sanctioning. FIFA is clear about their dislike of multinational leagues, but things can change quickly with world soccer's governing body. UEFA may also see the strength of a BeneLiga as outweighing what happens to the clubs left out, but again that's an open question. What approving the BeneLiga would do is send a clear message across Europe. There's strength in joining together, and that's not just limited to big clubs in struggling domestic leagues.
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 email@example.com.
More from J Hutcherson:
- Setting up a super league
- Adams, Johnson, McKennie and the Bundesliga title
- Expansion isn't the biggest story for MLS in 2020
- FIFA and UEFA consider the future of the club soccer schedule
Logos courtesy of the Pro League and Eredivisie