By J Hutcherson (Mar 30, 2021) US Soccer Players – It’s probably easier to look at what might not be changing in the way European club soccer runs. We already knew about the various ideas for revamping the Champions League, the threat of a super league, and FIFA’s push for a bigger Club World Cup. Now, there are reports that UEFA is considering doing away with Financial Fair Play. That comes at a time when the pandemic is making predictions difficult. There’s no downplaying how strange this is for Europe’s power brokers, hoping for an immediate future that continues to drive the business of the sport.
“Hope is not a strategy” is a business cliche at this point, but it should resonate. The push for bailouts and intervention to save struggling clubs during the shutdown spoke to the fragility of some business models. The financial issues some of the biggest clubs in Europe now face only adds to that bleak short-term outlook. Sustainability in European soccer is not a new discussion, but it takes on added importance when there’s no clear timeline for the return of crowds to games.
That’s different than a return to normal because pro sports across the world expect better. The quarantines and closed-door games create pent-up demand, as that thinking goes. When the gates open, the flood of renewed interest will carry with it significant revenue. That means a new boom period for sports coming out of the pandemic. At least, that’s the optimistic view of the situation.
European soccer has held on. The initial predictions of mass bankruptcies haven’t happened. The economic losses certainly have, but leagues and clubs have found ways to mitigate them. That’s what the business model demands in a crisis, and for the most part, the European soccer business model has held. The pending doom still exists, but the decisions to support struggling clubs, especially in the lower divisions, appear to be working. So have the adjustments in places like France and Italy where issues with broadcast partners added more pressure.
That’s what is happening now, the result of an unpredictable scenario playing out in real time. The pandemic era ends as soon as some version of regular service returns. That’s not delaying UEFA’s work on what happens next.
Reports have UEFA reconsidering financial fair play, potentially subbing in a system that won’t rely on a balanced budget. Short on details, that should free up spending alongside capital. Treating that as shorthand for letting the game’s elite spend freely while bringing in new sources of revenue is far from outlandish speculation. Neither is seeing this as another example of super club appeasement.
The concept of a free spending soccer club usually applies most to those already established as top-tier. As the name suggests, introducing financial fair play was a hedge against spending as a competitive advantage. That, in turn, became its own game with clubs trying to find ways to avoid FFP sanctions while doing what the rules by design should prevent. Financial fair play in theory isn’t what we see in practice. The same could quickly prove true for less financial control.
Again, without a clear understanding of what UEFA has in mind, most of this is conjecture. Doing away with financial fair play suggests clubs can do more in pursuit of players and success. That’s the scenario that brought in the economic regulations in the first place. European soccer once believed in the idea of enough financial parity to try and regulate economic imbalance. Changing that recasts all of European soccer as more pragmatic when it comes to operating clubs as sustainable businesses.
There are certainly other ways to look at that. Leeds United ended up the poster club for overspending in England, but they were far from the only ones to give that a try. Up and down the leagues, clubs would spend to the point where only continued success would keep them viable. Sliding down the leagues was, to some extent, the best scenario. Administration, phoenix clubs, and operating with the understanding that these are businesses were tough lessons that some in the industry still haven’t fully grasped.
What European club soccer looks like just a few seasons from now is becoming more of an open question than anybody should expect. The Europa Conference League starts next season. A new version of the Champions League is happening whether or not UEFA goes with the Swiss system or protection for legacy clubs. The push for less fixture congestion is once again raising the concept of an ideal domestic league.
The last time that happened was in the early 90s. The highlights from that era were the Premier League breakaway, FIFA outlawing the back pass, and UEFA turning the European Cup into the Champions League. Less remembered was FIFA’s attempt to impose an ideal domestic league across soccer. Even the Premier League reduced from 22 to 20 teams, but 18 was the step too far. FIFA wanted 16, the better to get the games in for club and country. What was clear then should resonate now. When the stakeholders push for some changes, it normally leads to others. That can quickly turn into a radically altered game.
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.
More from J Hutcherson:
- This strange season continues to trip up Europe’s top clubs
- The BeNe League as an answer
- The Deutsche Fussball Liga’s pandemic finances
- Is European club soccer set for this much change?
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