Last week, there was a flurry of rumours that the European Super League was making a comeback. Reports in Spain and Italy suggested Andrea Agnelli — president of Juventus, one of the three clubs still driving the project, along with Real Madrid and Barcelona — was going to make an announcement at the Financial Times’ Business of Football Summit in London. Documents illustrating the need for a Super League began circulating among stakeholders and media.
Gary Neville, an outspoken critic of the ESL, and the Football Supporters Association took to social media to denounce the project. UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin suggested Super League supporters were deluded and compared them to people who think the Earth is flat. LaLiga president Javier Tebas said they “lie more than (Russian President Vladimir) Putin.”
As it turned out, Agnelli held fire. He simply reiterated the argument for a Super League — in his view UEFA is a “monopolistic operator” that precludes access to a free market in violation of European competition law — and said the three rebel clubs would simply sit back and wait for a ruling from the European Court of Justice, which is expected to hear their case in the near future. That decision — when it comes, if it comes — could change the landscape of the European game forever.
Q: This again? Wasn’t this already settled? What are these teams arguing now?
A: The same thing they argued all along: that UEFA act as both regulator and competition organiser and that makes them monopolistic. Clubs aren’t free to set up independent leagues and tournaments and do as they please. They have to follow regulations set by their national federations, UEFA and FIFA. And, on top of that, the biggest, most lucrative club competition in the game is directly organised by UEFA.
Q: What’s the problem with that?
A: Well, they might make the following analogy. Many countries have deregulated electricity markets. Electricity companies invest money and compete with each other to provide electricity. But there is a regulator — usually the government or some government agency — that licences electric utilities, decides how much they can charge and how they operate. Governments do this because it’s a public utility, to protect consumers and make sure nobody gets gouged or exploited. Most folks would accept that as fair and reasonable.
Q: But football clubs aren’t utilities, are they? I mean, they don’t provide heat, water or power, things we need to live …
A: Well, some hardcore fans might dispute that, but that’s part of the argument these teams are making. Clubs aren’t like electricity companies, they’re more like entertainment companies or restaurants. There’s no central regulator telling Disney or Netflix which shows to produce and how to distribute them. And apart from some minor regulation on opening hours, health standards and zoning, McDonald’s is free to serve what they want, where they want and how they want. Some Super League proponents no doubt feel that way, but the current argument doesn’t quite go that far. They accept some level of oversight, what really rankles them is that UEFA also organises competitions.
Q: OK, so that would be like a regulator telling Disney or Netflix how to run their business and, on top of that, making its own streaming content?
A: Sort of. ESL-supporting clubs say that UEFA competes with them directly for sponsors and, in effect, prevents them from organising their own competitions. And if they organised their own competitions, they feel they’d be better and more successful and more lucrative. Plus — they don’t say this, but it’s reasonable to suspect it would be a part of it — they wouldn’t have to share as much of the revenue with smaller clubs and federations.
Q: What’s stopping them from leaving and setting up their own tournament?
A: Technically, nothing. In practice, they’d have to leave their domestic leagues (which would hit them very hard financially), their players would be banned from FIFA competitions like the World Cup and there’d be all sorts of licensing, transfer and registration issues, which is why they don’t want to do that. They want the European Court to determine that UEFA is violating European competition law by abusing its monopoly position, and force it to take a step back.
Q: What does that mean?
A: Clubs would then be free to organise their own version of the Champions League or similar competition. They would decide how the revenue is distributed and who gets to play in it. (Originally, they were going to have “founding members” whose place in the league was assured and would not need to qualify. They’ve since abandoned that, pledging to being “open.”) UEFA would simply sanction it, maybe provide referees and disciplinary oversight, and not much more than that.
Q: Why are some people so opposed to this?
A: There are basically two types of counterarguments. The first is that no matter what format you come up with, you’re taking power away from an organisation (UEFA) that, while imperfect, is an elected body, with national federations (most of whom, at least in Europe, are also elected bodies) and handing it over to clubs, most of which are private institutions accountable only to their owners (and in some cases members). And some clubs are much bigger and more powerful than others. It’s the difference between oligarchy and democracy. And while the Super League clubs talk about solidarity and revenues trickling down through the system, many outside this circle simply don’t trust them.
The other is cultural and philosophical. Football is a business and it’s entertainment, sure, but to many it’s also an intrinsic part of European culture. It has a social value that needs to be protected, it’s not just about the top 12 or 20 or even 50 clubs. It can’t be left purely to the free market, just as we don’t leave things like museums, schools, fire departments and police to the free market.
Q: Other than the point that UEFA is supposedly breaking competition law, what other arguments do the Super League proponents bring? And are they valid?
A: The biggest issue they have is that the current ecosystem is financially broken and unsustainable. I don’t buy it, because, as with any business, if you’re making losses, you either increase revenue or cut costs. Simply put, clubs haven’t been good at controlling costs. They blame UEFA for not doing a good job at enforcing rules like Financial Fair Play and they may have a point, but under their proposed system, somebody would still need to be responsible for enforcing cost controls and I don’t see why clubs think they’d be better at applying the rules than UEFA.
These clubs complain about a lack of accountability and transparency around solidarity payments — money that is distributed by UEFA to member federations and clubs — which may or may not be true, but it seems to me it’s in everybody’s interest to try to fix this from within the system. And, in fact, on many issues — from revenue distribution to commercial contracts — UEFA has effectively partnered with the leading clubs. The European Club Association (ECA), for example, has seats on the UEFA Executive Committee and they are in a joint venture with UEFA over the sale of commercial and broadcast rights for European competition.
Proponents also complain that there are “close ties to club owners from non-member states.” I’m not sure what that means, but of the 12 original Super League clubs, eight are controlled by folks who are not from Europe. So you could say they’re complaining about themselves.
Q: Will the European Court of Justice consider all this?
A: Good question. Right now we don’t even know when they’ll hear the case (best guesses say in the next 12 months) or if they’ll actually make a ruling (they could decide not to and kick it down the road), but if they do, you wonder whether they’ll stick to the literal, legal interpretation of competition law or whether they’ll take other factors into account — like the social and political impact of the ruling. Some experts suggest that the ECJ is more of a political court, taking into account the current mood in Europe, rather than just simply applying laws based on black-and-white reasoning. If that’s the case, it would explain the heavy lobbying both by Super League clubs and their opponents, from politicians to fans.