By J Hutcherson (Mar 2, 2021) US Soccer Players – It’s easy enough to start with the Barcelona situation, but it already runs deeper than that. Barca has become the calling card for European super clubs in trouble at a time when multiple parties seem to want significant changes to the game at the highest level. This may not be hitting the reset button that a breakaway European super league represents, but it’s enough for a few official statements from governing bodies.
That’s an indication of how deeply discord may run. While it’s not exactly a new scenario for European club soccer, whenever talk of a breakaway picks up it’s as much about keeping score. The elite clubs want more because they always do. UEFA and the leagues would like to keep the super clubs in check because they always do. Otherwise, they risk producing enough of an opening that something has to happen. Whether or not it’s on anybody’s terms other than the market has helped keep a version of the status quo in place for going on four decades.
While the Premier League breakaway in the early 90s now seems like ancient history, it remains the model for resetting a competition. The members of the topflight in England moved from the Football League as the sanctioning body to the Football Association. With that, they took more control of the available revenue streams. UEFA quickly turned the European Cup into the Champions League around that time, forestalling the breadth of Europe from considering alternative options. Not that it stopped some clubs from considering what a new version of European soccer under their control might look like.
Now, a combination of the looming Champions League TV rights deal and the realities of the pandemic have created a new normal for that broader conversation. While Barcelona might be at the top of the financial problems for super clubs table, there are enough teams slotting in behind them to suggest a trend. The loss of live audiences and the money they bring into a soccer business is impacting clubs, leagues, and governing bodies. While it’s easy to predict a return to some version of normal as a potential economic windfall, right now is the problem.
Short of being able to predict the future, right now it looks like European soccer may have already hit the high water mark in terms of broadcast rights fees. Sponsorship may also be an issue. The very basics of how most clubs pay to maintain that elite status is in question. For those trying to hold onto control, the time-frame is also an issue. The main TV rights package is up at the end of the 2023-24 season. There’s a runway, but the pandemic creating what are now mostly unknowables isn’t helping.
The Premier League is already seeing indications with some of its foreign rights packages that things may change. Ligue 1’s issues with its domestic TV rights are its own story. They were unable to get a rights auction up to the minimum they want for their games after their broadcast partner Mediapro exited in December. The previous deal was worth around $984m a season. When the money changes that abruptly, so do the expectations across the board.
UEFA’s plan for a revamped Champions League after 2024 had already attempted to address the wants of the super clubs. Courtesy of the pandemic, those wants are quickly turning into needs. Whether or not any governing body can address the elite while pleasing the rest of its membership and at the same time creating something capable of returning more value than what rights cost? That’s become the difficult situation for UEFA.
Right now for the elite clubs, the main pressure point is keeping their businesses going in the usual way. That means generating enough money to spend at the top of the transfer market, wherever that ends up being this summer. It also means staying competitive with the clubs funded by governments and oligarchs, a distinction not lost on any of the super club membership.
It’s easy enough for the rest of European soccer to want the super clubs to eat themselves. When Juventus spent time in the second division in the mid-2000s over the Calciopoli scandal, it’s the kind of punchline that tends to delight fans of other clubs. Fair enough, considering we’re talking about sports. The mighty brought low is its own narrative, but too much of it could reshape the sport in ways that may destabilize the whole.
While waving the super clubs out of European soccer as we know it is a perfectly acceptable response to too much talk of revenue and business plans, that’s not what UEFA or the leagues want. They want something resembling the current structure with whatever givebacks are necessary to keep their biggest brands involved. That may end up requiring more than any of those parties thought just a year ago.
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:
- Major League Soccer’s next geography lesson
- Fulham experiences Premier League parity
- European club soccer may have no choice but to change
- Chelsea does as expected
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