The last time a group of wealthy Americans so infuriated the English, an expeditionary force of British troops occupied Washington and set fire to the White House and the Capitol. That was 207 years ago, when “foot-ball” was played with an inflated pig’s bladder and Yankee belligerence was met with musket balls and municipal arson.
Backed by a U.S. bank (JPMorgan Chase) and the three Premier League clubs controlled by billionaire American owners (Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United), the breakaway European Super League is widely seen as a brazen money grab that will further enrich the aristos while laying waste to the existing structure of European soccer. John Henry, Stan Kroenke and the Glazer family are getting the worst of it in the English tabloids, which have portrayed the owners as a gang of arrivistes and carpetbaggers, vulgarians with no appreciation for the storied traditions of the sport and no ties to the communities that sustain their respective investments.
Monday’s Daily Mail really laid it on thick, running a 6,000-word screed replete with glossy photographs of the American owners’ homes, yachts and wives—the tab manages to squeeze in no fewer than three shots of Henry’s spouse, Linda Pizzuti—before applying similar scrutiny to the bank funding the $4 billion ESL venture. Lest the Mail’s editorial stance be obscured by the subtleties of its layout, the paper illustrates the section about JPMorgan Chase with photos of dead villains Jeffrey Epstein and Bernie Madoff.
If stateside response to the ESL development has been somewhat less histrionic, that’s largely a function of European soccer’s niche sport status here in the former colonies. While certainly there are plenty of Americans who “support” a specific Premier League “side”—the borrowed Anglicisms are a sure sign of super-fandom—the various English and continental leagues don’t put up football numbers here in the U.S.
According to Nielsen live-plus-same day data, the season’s most-watched Premier League match was Manchester City’s 4-1 win over Liverpool on Feb. 7, which averaged 973,000 viewers on NBCSN and another 87,000 streaming impressions. The league reached its U.S. high-water mark on March 8, 2020, as NBCSN’s telecast of Man U’s 2-0 victory over Man City averaged 1.34 million viewers, jumping to 1.76 million with streaming and a live simulcast on the Spanish-language network Telemundo. By way of comparison, December’s Liga MX Final (UNAM vs. León) averaged 2.43 million viewers on Univision.
While the Premier League is the subject of outsized fascination across the pond, Liga MX remains soccer’s biggest draw here in the U.S. The Mexican league just about doubles the deliveries of the English clubs, and its winter title tilt even outdrew the vaunted UEFA Champions League. Per Nielsen, Univision and TUDN’s coverage of the August Paris Saint-Germain-Bayern Munich match averaged 2.05 million; as CBS Sports Network is not officially rated, no viewership data for the English-language simulcast is available. (In Germany, France and England, the UEFA championship match averaged 35.5 million viewers.)
Neither Saint-Germain nor Bayern Munich have signed on for membership in the Super League. As of Tuesday afternoon, Chelsea was considering and Man City confirmed backing out of their earlier commitments, a reversal that would reduce the number of participating Premier League clubs to four (Liverpool, Man U, Arsenal and Tottenham). Atlético Madrid also will reportedly pull out of the competition.
The Chelsea and Man City switcheroos came in the wake of widespread condemnation and talk that UEFA would level sanctions against any club that tosses its hat into the ring with the ESL. Further pressure has been applied by FIFA, which has intimated that defectors would be banned from participating in the World Cup. Meanwhile, the Premier League rulebook adds another layer of intrigue to the story, which continues to mutate in real-time; Rule L9 states that member clubs may only ally themselves with bodies that are approved by the league itself. In other words, there is a distinct possibility that Liverpool and the other clubs would be forced to quit England’s top-tier soccer organization if they choose to forge ahead with the ESL plan.
While the erasure of the wealthiest and most successful teams would devalue the Premier League’s rights package here in the U.S., there’s no guarantee that NBC will go forward with English soccer after its current deal expires in 2022. Under terms of that contract, NBC forked over some $1 billion for the rights to air Premier League games, but if prodigal squads like Man U and Liverpool will no longer be on the menu, Comcast will have its hands full trying to justify the expense to its shareholders.
That said, if the ESL scheme gets off the ground, the launch is all but certain to coincide with a lucrative media-rights auction. ViacomCBS has been loading up on soccer properties for its Paramount+ service, recently inking deals with Concacaf and Serie A. As the distribution model tilts in the direction of streaming, a fully-realized ESL likely would be an attractive target for the aforementioned service, as well as Comcast’s Peacock and Disney’s ESPN+.
Also in the mix is DAZN, which in March snapped up the rights to carry Serie A matches in Italy as part of a three-year, $3 billion deal. According to the Rome-based broadsheet Corriere dello Sport, DAZN owner Leonard Blavatnik “has been working on [a deal with ESL] for some time,” a report the streamer has characterized as erroneous.
Earlier today, Amazon Prime Video, which airs Premier League games in the U.K., released a statement in which it voiced concern about the controversial plan before disavowing any involvement in the plot to get ESL off the ground. In the statement, the streamer said that “part of the drama and beauty of European football comes from the ability of any club to achieve success through their performance on the pitch.”
As the Amazon statement suggests, in the absence of relegation and given the huge sums of money that will be divvied up amongst European soccer royalty—ahead of the proposed launch, each founding club would receive $400 million—drama and beauty may be in short supply if the rogue effort manages to succeed.