By J Hutcherson (Feb 2, 2021) US Soccer Players – Let’s all feign surprise that reports of FC Barcelona facing significant financial issues ended up with reports of how much they’re paying Lionel Messi. It’s an easy way to understand what’s fueling the latest round of super league speculation. It cost a significant amount of money to have a chance of maintaining elite status in European soccer, more than any North American league would allow its teams to pay. The simple reason for that is payroll rules, luxury taxes, and salary caps, the kinds of things that Europe’s major leagues have mostly avoided.
It doesn’t take much business insight to work out how strange that difference in models is considering the broader economics. Europe, where high taxes and social safety nets are the norm somehow missed applying that to pro sports. North America and its wholehearted embrace of late stage free market capitalism doesn’t reflect that in how its major leagues operate.
Over the years, we’ve seen European soccer executives look at the US models and credit them for the obvious. Teams normally aren’t spending the bulk of their revenue just to keep up with each other. Players normally move to other teams in exchange for other players, not for cash. New talent enters the league through a draft. In salary capped leagues, there’s only so much any club can pay.
Then there’s the European setup, where changing how club finances work hasn’t done enough to keep up with competitive spending. FIFA’s recent attempt to regulate what agents make is worth the reminder that world soccer gave up regulating agents in general years ago. In North American sports, agent regulation normally falls to the unions representing the players. While unions exist for every major league in Europe, their scope of work is noticeably different.
So a team like Barcelona facing real financial issues can run hand-in-hand with spending in the neighborhood of $168m a season on a single player. That’s just payer play. Add in the transfer fees clubs regularly spend and it’s a system that requires an amount of money that most would argue is unreasonable. Barcelona is only the latest example, with most of these clubs that are also global brands themselves finding a way out of their issues.
At least that’s normally how it works. Though it’s perhaps unfair to pile on a system that seemed to be able to avoid collapse in better times, the pandemic changes everything. There’s real concern that another stoppage would mean entire leagues of clubs facing significant financial issues. Teams already squeezed by the loss of attendance and related revenue don’t have a lot of room to absorb additional economic impact. There’s no design for that, no way to bail out so many struggling soccer clubs. At least not easily, and certainly unlikely to happen quickly enough to save all of them.
Comparing other teams to FC Barcelona is a macro to micro exercise in La Liga and even the Champions League. There’s a difference in scale that pushes a small number of clubs into that super club status. In practice, the knockout stage of the Champions League can reflect that. In theory, it’s an open competition that owes no loyalty to the super clubs. No surprise then that the recent super league rumors are now directed at subverting the Champions League.
UEFA has already set the group stage of the Champions League up to benefit the elite domestic leagues. That any of the members of those leagues could take their Champions League spots maintains the appearance of an open competition. That may no longer work for the elite clubs of Europe, who would prefer guarantees.
That’s what is fueling rumors of a super club breakaway that would only replace the Champions League. FIFA and the confederation stepped out against that, with the clubs involved risking getting kicked out of their domestic leagues and their players no longer eligible for national team duty. That’s such the expected response that soccer’s bureaucracy could’ve remained silent. Without substantive changes in how that collection of acronym organizations see themselves, it’s simply not feasible. This is a world of all the way in or all the way out.
So why not another tweak to the Champions League format in an attempt to forestall a breakaway? That’s the “Swiss system” where UEFA would change the Champions League group stage into a psuedo-league. Much closer to the name of the tournament, but still with some issues. Each team would play ten others, but there would be 32 teams playing. That means more guaranteed games, a throwback of sorts to the brief era of the double group stage. It’s no surprise that there are rankings involved, guaranteed places, and everything else that bothers so many about the demands of the super clubs.
Add to that the reality of the pandemic with no timeline for a return to normal. Then there’s UEFA’s on timeline, tied to the next broadcast rights deal and once again appeasing the super clubs. Now, we can add what could become the most important piece. Those same super clubs needing more revenue than the current system can possibly generate. What that means is the return of that nagging feeling that the only answer for the super clubs is their own league on their terms.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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