Sports

Why the European Super League is terrible for soccer and bad for pro sports

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I got a lot of texts and messages last night from my non-soccer initiated friends. It was surprising how big of a story the formation of “The Super League” became on every U.S. outlet. Obviously European soccer has become a big deal on these shores, but that it hit every major website near the top (meaning that any sports fan of any kind saw it) was still jarring, at least for someone who still remembers only getting to see Champions League games on tape delay on ESPN 2 with Tommy Smyth and JP Dellacamera. Or someone who remembers Fox Sports World.

To the American fan, it may be hard to understand why teams acting essentially like NFL teams is bad, and in fact, possibly even ruinous to the entire sport. I think the first thing to know is that these 12 clubs released their official statement about forming the ESL, and their wack-ass website, at midnight or 1 a.m. European time. These cowardly reptiles hid behind press releases in the cover of darkness. They didn’t hold a press conference or stand in front of the media (which you don’t even have to do these days!). They slid a note under the door and ran away. So you know that they know it’s bad.

When I explain why soccer is different than the sports we watch here to friends who aren’t fans, — a major part of the attraction for fans like me, and why it has transfers instead of trades or promotion and relegation and other things — is that soccer leagues are formed from the bottom up, not top-down like in the United States. Here, the leagues form the teams, i.e. expansion franchises. The league makes the rules at the top. When players are drafted (something I’ve had trouble explaining to my European friends) you aren’t really drafted by the Jacksonville Jaguars, as Trevor Lawence will be next week. You are drafted into the NFL and then assigned to the Jaguars, and are then subject to all the rules and regulations that the NFL has designed for its teams.

In soccer, aside from MLS and one or two other leagues, the teams formed the leagues a hundred years ago. The clubs came first, and then they agreed to form these entities so they could play each other. The Premier League doesn’t just decide where a new team will be. A new team earns that right.

And that’s really the crux of the insult, the shame of this ESL. While it becomes a more and more quaint notion, thanks to the money in the game now, soccer still has a sense that you’ve earned your place. Whenever it happened, you were promoted through the ladder of leagues to the top. And then you worked your way to the top of the table to play in European competition. While it’s the same teams mostly every year, and they have already monopolized the top competition (Champions League), they had to stay there because they finished high in their league the previous season. They weren’t just handed the spot.

And while 12 to 15 spots of the Champions League are still basically a given to the biggest clubs on the continent, your Munichs or PSGs or Madrids or Manchesters, there’s still plenty of spots for teams that can work their way into it. There’s still this belief that if you run your club correctly, scout correctly, develop from your academy correctly, purchase smartly, and get just a little luck that you will crash the party and transform your club for years. This is what has happened at Leicester City. Their shocking title in 2016 got them into the Champions League, and while the core of that team save Jamie Vardy is long gone, the boosted coiffeurs from just that one season augmented an already ahead-of-the-game scouting and development system that has produced two seasons that were Champions League-worthy (even if they choked it away last year). This is the hope for Everton or West Ham or Atalanta or Wolfsburg or Eintracht Frankfurt. That just one or two seasons can transform what the club is.

This is what happened at Tottenham, really. Before Mauricio Pochettino showed up to manage, they had one Champions League appearance ever. But thanks to his shrewd management and a couple other factors, they were in the competition four years in a row, including appearing in a final in 2019. And now they’re apparently a super-force worthy of being included in this cabal of insatiable greed.

What the ESL will do is simply erase all that. It will be a closed shop. No one can earn their way into it, and possibly alter their club’s trajectory for years or more. Whatever “Champions League” is left behind for clubs not in the ESL will not be nearly lucrative enough to engineer that kind of boost. If these teams are booted out of their domestic leagues, those leagues will lose value too. Which means the leagues lower than the top division in each country will lose out too, and a fair few clubs will go out of existence. The ESL will run all of this over chasing additional billions to the billions they already have. Sounds familiar to an American, I’m sure.

And none of it will be earned. Certainly Arsenal, Tottenham, and Liverpool are not included for what they’ve done this season. AC Milan were a punchline until this season. Fuck, Manchester United show no Champions League trophies or league titles in eight years. Just how “super” are they even?

Another thing that attracts us to soccer is that there are multiple ways to have a successful season. The title may be out of reach, but you can still chase a European place. If that doesn’t work, there are cup competitions. Who cares now? If these teams stay in their respective domestic leagues, but a season sees a title out of reach, they’re just going to play out the string. How hard will non-ESL teams fight for places in the zombie Champions League or Europa League now? The seasons could be damp squibs by March, and maybe much earlier for a lot of teams. Again, nothing earned.

All these clubs are there because of their “brands,” which are based — though you have to dig through about 50 feet of crap to find it — on their support through history. These are the biggest clubs because yes, they’ve won a lot of things, but also because they’ve had the most fans throughout the decades, a following built over those decades. And it’s what these new owners merely see at ATMs. Fenway Sports Group (FSG), the Glazers, the oil oligarchs or countries, Stan Kroenke — none of what was built when they had no idea what soccer was matters to them. It’s just something to be converted.

Again, this may sound quaint to the American fan, and that’s understandable. But because the clubs were originally built from the people, and the leagues from that, there was a sense that the fans actually mattered in soccer. That they had a voice (and they still do in Germany, because they have to own half the club by rule, which is why you don’t see Munich or Dortmund in this farce). Whatever reality that still held has now been washed away.

There’s more. The ESL could institute a salary cap with no relegation. There’s nothing to stop them, not even a players’ union. They can make up whatever rules they see fit. There’s no governing body but themselves. They could try to make it as “efficient” of a business as FSG has led the way in as MLB. They could ruin international soccer if these players are indeed banned from World Cups and European Championships as has been threatened. These clubs don’t care, they hate releasing their players for it anyway. What’s a World Cup if every player in the class of Kylian Mbappe, Neymar, Lewandowski, Messi, Ronaldo aren’t there?

Finally, it’s important to remember that while these clubs were secretly negotiating this breakaway that will see them initially net $5.5 billion collectively from JP Morgan Chase, and much more in the future, this is what some of them did during the pandemic claiming “hardship”:

What else is there to know?

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