Twelve of Europe’s most prominent football clubs (the EPL’s “Big Six” plus three teams from Spain and three from Italy) have confirmed plans for a breakaway, European club competition that will hold games midweek and compete with UEFA’s Champions League. The concept for a Super League is not new. As we wrote in October when reports of a FIFA-backed “European Premier League” leaked, the idea has been percolating since at least the mid-1980s, but the formation of a new league has never reached the finish line (though discussions did drive more money to the biggest clubs). So, it’s fair to wonder why the biggest shakeup of the European soccer pyramid in nearly three quarters of a century appears set to happen now. Conversations with a trio of global football insiders—including a team owner (Paul Conway, co-chairman of Barnsley FC), an investor (Jordan Gardner, who has a stake in Swansea City AFC) and a professor of sports management (Stefan Szymanski, University of Michigan)—suggested the Americanization of European soccer, the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2024 expiration of Champions League broadcast rights agreements all contributed to the timing of Sunday’s release.
Our Take: American team owners (see: John Henry, Avram Glazer and Stan Kroenke) are behind the latest breakaway effort. As Barnsley’s Conway explained, “The fundamental problem is they don’t like the way the intra-European league, the UEFA Champions League, is run.” The collective of American owners would like to see their clubs assured a place in the annual competition (as they are in the big four leagues). The American mindset “is to figure out a way that [they] don’t have to worry about relegation and can automatically qualify for European competition,” Gardner said, and realize the revenues that come along with participating every year. It is worth noting that in addition to Henry, Glazer and Kroenke, the American Paul Singer’s Elliot Management Corporation controls AC Milan (another club selected for the Super League).
The American owners believe Europe’s most storied football clubs fail to retain a large enough portion of Champions League revenues, and see less prominent participants cashing in on their draw. “The Kroenkes of the world, their motivations are to bring in as much money as they possibly can,” Gardner said, even if runs counter to how the sport has operated for more than 100 years. Super League founding clubs will split $4.2 billion, or roughly four times what the Champions League winner earned in 2020; a total significantly greater than what they are expected to lose from no longer participating in UEFA competitions and any reduction in revenue on the domestic league side (the clubs are working under the assumption they will be able to remain in their respective national leagues). For reference purposes, clubs earn roughly 40 million euros for reaching the group stage of Champions League. Arsenal, currently in ninth place in the Premier League standings, would receive no money from UEFA under the current system, because only the top four EPL teams automatically qualify.
While breaking away sounds logical enough, one could argue, as Gardner did, that the existing soccer system already skews more than enough money to these bigger clubs, and trying to find ways to take in even more income is greedy, particularly when it has the potential to financially devastate those left on the outside. Super League teams “are going to get a huge increase in revenue per club. But what are they going to do with it?” Gardner asked. “Every time a football club gets more money, they just spend more money on players and lose more money. I’m not even sure in the long run [the Super League] will be financially more lucrative for them unless they start running their businesses better.”
Unlike the North American pro leagues, there is very little net income in the world of soccer. “And while that was true even before COVID, what COVID has done is deprive clubs of gate [receipts], commercial [revenues] and some broadcast money, meaning many of these clubs, which were very on edge [financially] to begin with are now teetering on collapse,” said Szymanski, the Michigan professor. With less fortunate clubs facing financial disaster, the most prominent clubs see an opportunity to push the Super League through. “Now is a very good time for the big clubs to say, ‘We’ll give you some money to help you survive this if you enable us to change the structure of competition,’” Szymanski said.
The upcoming expiration of UEFA’s global broadcast contracts might be the biggest factor in the timing of Sunday’s bombshell report. “This has everything to do with getting out ahead of the next cycle of commercial rights,” one unnamed media rights consultant said. As Conway explained, “It’s only like once every 10 years where everything is up for renewal, so Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal would rather the new Super League contract get that revenue than the new UEFA Champions League contract. [The clubs] are going to get a much bigger share [of the Super League contract].” Remember, UEFA just announced plans to reform the Champions League (adding teams) in an attempt to take in even more broadcast rights revenue (they currently generate $2.37 billion globally on an annual basis). Our media rights source pegged the value of the new Super League rights between $2.75 billion and $3.25 billion per year.