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Why The European Super League Was Inevitable (and why it was doomed)

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In which I rant

The celebration of Leicester City league trophy in Bangkok
This is what we’re fighting for
Photo by Vinai Dithajohn /Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

There is a very good chance that by the time this article is published it will already be obsolete. Things are moving very quickly with regards to the European Super League and the opposition to it. My understanding is that Manchester City and Chelsea have already decided to abandon the project, and that Manchester United CEO Ed Woodward has resigned. Whatever I write now may look quaint in half an hour.

[In the time it took for Jake to write this, every English club did indeed pull out.]

So be it. I’ve been waiting a long time for this finally to happen because it’s been inevitable for years. Anyone with a passing familiarity with American sports saw it coming a mile away.

“Blake’s different. He understands perfectly...and he doesn’t care.”


Foreign Investors Owning English Football Clubs Isn’t (Necessarily) Bad

Foreign investors have had a massive influence on English football, but the experience has been for the most part a benign one. For the most part, it’s been a matter of billionaires looking for shiny things to play with or investment firms with little interest in the football side of the football business (and yes, I know how daft that sounds). There have been some remarkably good owners (our own Srivaddhanaprabha Family), some shockingly bad ones (Hull City’s Assem Allam comes to mind), but for the most part, it’s been business as usual.

American Investors, Particularly Those With A Sporting Background, Are A Different Story

The Glazer family and the Fenway Sports Group are not merely foreign billionairess, they’re billionaires with an understanding of how to maximize the profitability of a sporting enterprise. You are probably already familiar with the single biggest difference between American and European sport: static leagues vs. a promotion/relegation pyramid.

What you may be less familiar with are some of the knock-on effects of having static leagues. The biggest is that there is effectively no professional sport outside of the top tier. Baseball has hundreds of minor league teams, but they are “leagues” in name only. With a few minor exceptions, they’re all just developmental squads. The players can be plucked from your local clubs’ squad at any moment, rendering what little competition there was entirely moot. The NFL, NBA, and NHL are the same or worse. There is no competitive professional sport outside of the top tier.

This also means that, should the league decide to expand, they do so not through promoting a club from a lower league but through creating a new team out of whole cloth. Austin FC began play in MLS this year. They did not fight their way up through the ranks; they simply did not exist until the league created them. Teams also move and do so frequently. Whichever city is willing to provide a stadium and a favorable tax deal can become a host to a top tier franchise overnight (literally, in the case of Indianapolis).

As you might imagine, this is a remarkably profitable model. The spoils of victory are shared and there’s no penalty for losing. With there being only one league, player salaries are easier to control. With no loyalty to any city, teams can play them off against each other for the best deal. There is a reason you never see American sports teams in bankruptcy. There’s no risk, no need to win a spot at the table through competition, and enormous return.

Arlo gets it.

This is the model that inspired the much-reviled “Project Big Picture,” which sought to enshrine the Big Six as the permanent seats of power in English football. And it is most definitely the blueprint for the European Super League.

Note: While I’ve been writing, I’ve heard rumors that, as the ESL collapses, Fenway Sports Group are preparing to sell Liverpool. This is not the most surprising news I’ve ever heard.

What Would Happen To The Domestic Leagues If The European Super League Proceeded As Planned?

They would die. Whether it would be in the form of mass bankruptcies, making deals to become feeder clubs for the top teams, or both, this would end all competitive football outside of the top tier in Europe.

Will That Happen?

No. The whole mess is falling apart literally as I type. The owners involved should have known better than to attempt to dismantle their entire structure of football. The supporters were never going to let it happen...at least, not this time.

Phew! We’re Saved!

Not so fast. There are some very real problems that made the ESL attractive and nothing has been done to address them. The expansion of non-league fixtures has reached the point of being absurd. Between international duty and the bloating of the Champions League and Europa League, the clubs, especially the top ones, feel like they’re shouldering too much of the burden and I don’t think they’re wrong.

Let’s not forget that the governing bodies, FIFA and UEFA both, are corrupt and incompetent in approximately equal measure. There’s entirely too much self-dealing in both of them, and when they do attempt to redress a real problem, they come up with Financial Fair Play which not only compounded the problem it was introduced to solve, but had the added bonus of being illegal and unenforceable.

The fact that there are teams in England and elsewhere in Europe that aren’t being run like businesses and aren’t overly concerned with turning a profit is a weird but very pressing problem because teams that do have to turn a profit are trying to compete against them on the pitch and when vying for players. Which is to say, the Glazers and FSG do have some legitimate points, even if they’re being drowned out by their willingness to sacrifice the sport for their own interests.

What Happens Now?

Beats me. My guess is that the Americans abandon the Big Six and sell the clubs. This was their attempt at endgame, and it seems to have failed in a spectacularly satisfying fashion. I actually have some sympathy for FSG because they did an amazing job rebuilding Liverpool into a true international powerhouse and now they’ll be remembered for this as much as their good works.

European Super League reaction
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones.
Photo by Peter Byrne/PA Images via Getty Images

FIFA and UEFA will be the unlikely and undeserved heroes for simply not being terrible. They haven’t really done anything to deserve adulation, and the cracks in the foundation remain, but they’ll have some goodwill to squander in the meantime. In a perfect world, they would use this opportunity to scale back some of their greedier measures and work with the leagues to sort this mess out. I am not holding my breath.

Is This All Because Of Leicester?

Honestly? I wouldn’t rule it out. Weirdly, I think that winning the league was less a concern to the Big Six than stealing one of their divinely ordained Champions League places. Add that to the fact that both Leicester and West Ham are vying for top four spots this year may have helped them decide that spots in Europe’s top club competition were too important to be settled by, well, competition.

Final note: And...it’s over. All six English clubs have withdrawn during the time it took to write this. This has gone from being an existential crisis to a cautionary tale in 48 hours. Let’s hope we learn from it.