On Sunday, the European game was rocked by revelations that a number of leading clubs — anywhere from 12 to 15 — had either signed an agreement or expressed interest in joining a breakaway league that would effectively be a direct competitor for the UEFA Champions League. Among them are Manchester United, Real Madrid, Liverpool, Juventus and Barcelona.
It’s not the first time such rumours have emerged, but the timing is what makes this situation different.
On Monday, UEFA are expected to approve changes to the Champions League that will include an expanded format, more games and tweaks to the revenue distribution. These changes were agreed only on Friday after protracted negotiations with Europe’s leading clubs and the European Club Association (ECA). (They also voted to approve it, sources told ESPN.) All of this would now be overshadowed — and rendered potentially meaningless — if Europe’s biggest clubs renege on that agreement and are really ready to walk out as early as 2022, as some have reported.
The implications, though, go far beyond this. UEFA isn’t merely a competition organizer; it’s a confederation whose job is to redistribute revenue and develop the game across the continent. The Champions League is its biggest cash cow, and a severely weakened competition would have a serious impact on the sport throughout Europe, which is part of the reason one UEFA executive told ESPN they were prepared to “fight until the end.”
Q: Haven’t we been here before? Didn’t you write back in October about how we were ripe for this sort of change?
A: I did, but it appeared that the genie went back in the bottle during the ECA’s negotiations with UEFA over the expanded Champions League. The ECA wanted more teams and more games (to generate more revenue); they also wanted more governance and oversight over how the Champions League is run commercially, and they wanted changes to the revenue distribution. It took a long time — originally, UEFA were hoping to announce this reformatting last month — and it was a tough negotiation, but at the eleventh hour late on Friday, the ECA hammered out a deal with UEFA. So you can imagine that when UEFA found out the potential breakaway on Sunday, they weren’t best pleased … especially since ECA president Andrea Agnelli also happens to be the Juventus president. And Juventus are reportedly one of the signatories to this deal.
Q: How would the new Super League work, anyway?
A: Details are still sketchy — there are different versions of this floating around, and all of it subject to negotiations. But for it to work, you’d imagine up to 20 teams playing each other regularly, most likely with a league format followed by playoffs. But more than the format, what matters here is that the clubs would not be playing in the UEFA Champions League and would, instead, share the revenue among themselves. That’s a huge departure from the basic model of European team competitions, in any sport, which is obviously different from the models used in American sports.
Q: How so?
A: Take the NBA as an example. There are 30 teams, and each owner is effectively a shareholder in the league. They split the revenues among themselves and put in salary caps and luxury taxes to stay profitable. They don’t need to ask USA Basketball or FIBA (basketball’s equivalent of FIFA) for permission when they want to do things.
But in European football, clubs play in national leagues that are sanctioned by national federations. In England, the Football Association sanctions the Premier League, and UEFA is a governing body of which the FA is a member that organises competitions for clubs. The bulk of the revenue generated goes back to the clubs, but the rest gets redistributed among national federations, smaller clubs and for grassroots development.
Q: And the breakaway clubs have a problem with this?
A: There’s no question that the “breakaway clubs” generate a disproportionate amount of the revenue. After all, more people (and sponsors) will pay to see Barcelona vs. Manchester United than Dinamo Zagreb vs. Club Brugge. They argue they should be entitled to a bigger piece of the pie (and have been arguing this for years, progressively getting more and more). But some also question why revenues that they generate should be redistributed to smaller clubs and FAs. And they say it’s about votes and keeping the gravy train going, which to some degree is true. There are more small federations than big ones, and some of the smaller ones would struggle to survive without UEFA funding.
A number of the breakaway clubs also feel that if they ran the competition themselves, they could be more agile and innovative in generating more revenue, perhaps by playing on weekends or taking it on the road to Asia or North America. After all, these are global brands.
I guess it comes down to whether you view a football club primarily as a business to be grown and whose revenues ought to be maximized, or whether you see yourself as part of a greater whole, with a duty of solidarity to others. As I see it, the former is somewhat short-sighted. After all, the next great Real Madrid or Manchester United star could come from Moldova or Northern Ireland, but if there’s no functioning FA there because grassroots funding has been pulled, well …
Q: So what happens Monday?
A: UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin basically has two options. The vote on the Champions League reform is on the agenda. He can cave in and remove it from the agenda. This would kick the can down the road, and probably lead to more negotiations with the big clubs — this time, presumably, without the ECA, since we saw how far it got them last time — and perhaps more concessions in their favour, maybe a greater share of revenue or direct control over the competition or guaranteed places or whatever.
Or he can stand tall and call their bluff. Approve the Champions League format, call them out by name. They issued a joint statement with the English, Spanish and Italian Football Associations as well as the Premier League, Italy’s Serie A and La Liga in Spain saying they will “remain united” in their efforts to stop “a cynical project” that is “founded on the self-interest of a few clubs.” And they reminded everyone that clubs joining a breakaway league would be banned from playing both international competitions, like the World Cup, and domestic leagues as well.
Q: Wow, that’s extreme. So if, say, Manchester United broke away, they couldn’t play in the Premier League, FA Cup or League Cup?
A: In theory, yes. They have the power to do that, though it would likely end up in court. There’s a legal case to be made that if you’re a governing body and a competition organiser (which FIFA, UEFA and the FAs are), you can’t exclude somebody from participating. So that part remains to be seen. But I think their best strategy, if they want to stop it, is to wait it out …
Q: What do you mean?
A: For a start, even though 2022 has been mooted for the inaugural “breakaway season,” I don’t see how they can make it happen. Even if they’re somehow not kicked out of their domestic leagues, there are a bunch of legal and regulatory hurdles that clubs need to jump through.
Janusz Michallik explains how a European Super League would threaten the existence of the Champions League.
At clubs like Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern and Borussia Dortmund (the two German clubs haven’t signed on to this, but a breakaway without them is hard to imagine) they would be subject to member votes. They’re rumoured to have big financial backing and a global deal in place with a broadcaster (not ESPN), but would that be enough to offset potential losses in the short term?
More broadly, I just don’t know that the appetite is there from fans closest to the clubs — the people who go week in, week out.
Q: But isn’t the game global?
A: It is, but the reality is that clubs generate more revenue from the creatures of habit who trudge down to the stadium every week than they do from equally passionate fans halfway around the world. In Germany and England especially, there is bound to be a backlash.
Right now, stadiums are closed, but fans will be back before the end of the season at, say, Old Trafford. The Glazers aren’t exactly popular there; imagine if their own supporters let them know just what they think of the idea. Optics matter. Unless the breakaway owners can convince them that this is about something other than personal greed, it’s going to be very rough for them.
I’ll leave you with this quote released today from Sir Alex Ferguson, somebody whose Manchester United credentials are unimpeachable: “Talk of a super league is a move away from 70 years of European club football. Both as a player for a provincial team in Dunfermline in the 1960s and as a manager at Aberdeen winning the European Cup Winners Cup.”
“For a small provincial club in Scotland it was like climbing Mount Everest. Everton are spending £500m to build a new stadium with the ambition to play in the Champions League. Fans all over love the competition as it is.”