If Instagram-savvy superstars have become a firm fixture of modern European football, so have threats by elite teams to curtail their domestic commitments and join foreign counterparts to form super leagues. The latest plan — backed by Liverpool, Manchester United and $6bn worth of financing — emerged this week.
It ties in with another proposal from north-west England’s footballing giants, dubbed “Project Big Picture”, tabled earlier this month but since rejected. Their combined thrust is to shrink the Premier League from 20 to 18 teams and opt out of lesser tournaments to leave more space for a breakaway European competition. The mooted league would be a US-style affair, with up to 18 teams, play-offs and protection from relegation for founder members for at least 20 years. In contrast to US leagues such as the NFL or NBA, however, there is no plan to level the playing field through salary caps or a “draft picks” system, which allows weaker teams to take the best college players. Six English clubs — the others are Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur — plus Juventus, Paris Saint-Germain, Barcelona, Real and Atlético Madrid, and reigning Champions League holders Bayern Munich, are reportedly involved in the discussions.
Clubs naturally want to make the most out of seemingly insatiable demand for elite European football. The pandemic has added a sense of urgency. The new structure would allow them to replace some of the lost match-day revenues through bumper broadcasting deals in Asia and the US. However, questions remain about whether it is in the longer-term interests of the game for clubs to move further and further away from their roots.
Plans for breakaway leagues have often failed because local fans and smaller clubs have argued successfully that they would widen the gap between the elite and the rest, as well as breaking with cherished traditions and raising prices. While every football club — and supporter — has lost out from empty stadiums, smaller teams, which rely more on match-day revenue, and people with less wealth have suffered most financially from the pandemic. So-called “solidarity payments” could be offered to smaller clubs, though this may not wholly remove opposition.
The Premier League is one of the most fiercely competitive, least predictable competitions in the world. Yet since its establishment in 1992, fans have frequently complained about ticket prices and fixture schedules that seem designed to suit global audiences. It has also led to serious financial problems emerging at clubs relegated from the top division, due to the yawning gap between TV revenues received by Premier League clubs and those in the second-tier Championship.
Fans might argue that they can already watch the world’s best players in Uefa’s Champions League. Many like the openness and knockout nature of the existing competition — there are 32 teams involved — which frequently makes for enthralling plot twists. Think of successful campaigns by underdogs such as Ajax’s talented young team in 2018-19, or Liverpool’s “Miracle of Istanbul” squad, who in 2005 came from 3-0 down against AC Milan to win the trophy.
Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal are all backed by US capital; a model that avoids any chance of relegation will appeal to investors as it guarantees a steady stream of TV money. Yet fans might resent a structure that seems duller and breaks with tradition. Football is big business these days, but its stakeholders may prove harder to manage than most.
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