It's probably not a coincidence that reports of a breakaway European Super League resurfaced just as the Champions League returns. This is the classic story that won't go away and, at its heart, is about pitting the world's biggest football clubs against each other on a regular basis, or, at least, a more regular basis than the Champions League can offer.
Why play Burnley twice a year when you can play Barcelona instead, all while earning more money? And if you follow the U.S. major league blueprint -- a closed league with no promotion and relegation, maybe a salary cap -- you're on to a guaranteed money-spinner.
Talk of a Super League has been around since the 1990s and, with the sport globalized like never before, it has plenty of financial appeal to the lucky few who get to be a part of it. But that is all the Super League has been so far -- an idea, and almost nobody is willing to push the idea in public. As one executive told ESPN, "If it happens in our lifetime, it's going to happen now."
Why now? Because the pandemic is putting massive financial pressure on the sport. Let's dig into the issue.
So what brought back the idea of a Super League to replace the Champions League this time?
Reports in two outlets that don't usually deal in sport. Spanish digital business website Voz Populi wrote Tuesday morning that at least 18 European clubs were planning an NBA-style pan-European league that would effectively replace the Champions League as early as 2022.
A few hours later, Sky News reported essentially the same story with the added nugget that JP Morgan Chase was in talks to provide some $6 billion in debt financing.
The fact that both stories come from business reporters is relevant. It suggests that the information wasn't leaked by clubs hypothetically involved but rather from those trying to finance it.
Private equity, funds, investors, anybody sitting on large piles of money who needs something to invest in during the pandemic. On the flip side, COVID-19 has hit hard and many clubs are starved for cash, mainly because of the way they're run: every penny that goes in usually goes back out, so everyone, to varying degrees, is facing cash flow issues now that broadcasters and sponsors are demanding rebates and stadiums aren't fully open to fans.
UEFA, which organizes the Champions League and Europa League, hasn't been spared either. They told clubs on Monday that nearly $600 million has been lost due to the pandemic and payouts to clubs will be reduced over the next five seasons. Folks are left squabbling over what's left of the pie, with bigger clubs less willing to share.
Hence, the project "Big Picture" fiasco, a radical plan to overhaul English football that would see control over the Premier League switch to the top teams.
But if the biggest clubs break away and form their own competition, surely they can sell their own TV and commercial rights. Why would they need private equity partners to bankroll them?
Because you can't set up a league and sell rights overnight. It takes time. And because clubs are so dependent on these revenues, they feel safer with a partner effectively guaranteeing the money over the first few seasons.
What's FIFA's role in all this?
FIFA issued a statement saying it "did not wish to comment and participate in any speculation about topics which come up every now and then" and said there were structures and frameworks to deal with them on a national, European and global level.
Not exactly a denial...
Not an endorsement, either. If you're a bit cynical, they're adopting a "wait and see" approach. What's clear is that making a break-away Super League work is easier with FIFA's backing.
Why is that?
Ultimately, FIFA licenses the game, and runs the international transfer market and international competitions such as the World Cup. If you set up a rogue league outside FIFA's umbrella, FIFA can ban your players from the World Cup, ban your clubs from the Club World Cup (no biggie right now, but down the road, that competition could grow into something more important) and ban your players from transferring to other clubs. It can also ask your national federation to kick you out of your league and, if they don't do it, suspend them.
So yeah, it's not impossible to go rogue, but it's very difficult.
Why would FIFA back this? Hasn't FIFA president Gianni Infantino talked about wanting to grow the game in every part of the world, not just Europe?
That's a good question. The relationship between FIFA and UEFA (and CONMEBOL) is not great. One sticking point is Infantino's plan for a biennial Club World Cup with 24 (or 32) teams, which could threaten UEFA's Champions League.
There's a scenario where you put together a series of closed continental super leagues beyond Europe, under FIFA's auspices, and the winners face off in the Club World Cup. For example, there's long been talk of an MLS / Liga MX merger, which would cover North America. Infantino has discussed how the best way for Africa to retain talent and grow the game was a pan-African Super League. You could easily replicate this in South America, possibly Asia too.
There's no mystery about who would love to see this: Real Madrid president Florentino Perez. He convened a meeting of clubs from around the world about a year ago and invited Infantino (but not, significantly, confederation heads). Could there be a bunch of continental super leagues with the top teams playing in a FIFA Club World Cup?
Do you think Infantino would back a European Super League?
We're in the realm of speculation here, but if he did, it would be a huge gamble, because it would instantly alienate UEFA and CONMEBOL, at a minimum. And his support elsewhere, outside of CONCACAF, isn't rock-solid. He'd have to sell member nations on the idea that this is part of some kind of global effort to promote and develop the sport across the world. That's a big ask, given he's up for reelection in 2023.
What about UEFA? Surely a European Super League would gut the Champions League. And what about the domestic leagues?
They're dismissing the idea as hot air, for now. They say the principles of solidarity, promotion, relegation and open leagues are non-negotiable and that a super league would inevitably become boring. But they've got to be a little nervous. Every few years, bigger clubs demand more of the pie and they want the pie to grow (which is why we'll likely get four more Champions League group stage games in 2024).
As for the domestic leagues, it's obviously a threat. Even if, say, Real Madrid was allowed to play in both La Liga and a Super League, it's obvious what would be prioritized. Not to mention the fact that an 18-team Super League, plus playoffs, plus a 20-team Liga would put the number of club fixtures north of 80 (and that's without counting domestic cup competitions). It's simply not sustainable.
They're not commenting officially, but it's pretty clear that they're listening to what's put in front of them. We're in a situation of massive uncertainty and it makes sense to at least consider every option. As we saw with Project Big Picture, even in the Premier League -- the most stable and lucrative domestic competition -- they're not averse to shaking things up if it benefits them.
That said, apart from perhaps Real Madrid -- Florentino has long been open about his vision -- most of the others need to be careful, for different reasons. Juventus and PSG sit on UEFA's executive committee as representatives of the European Clubs Association. They need to be loyal, at least outwardly, to UEFA. Bayern and Borussia Dortmund are likely to stay quiet as well, because of the fan-driven culture in Germany and the potential viciousness of a backlash.
There would likely be opposition in England, though it's not clear how much some of these owners would care and you could see how they might sell it to their supporters. After all, the Premier League itself was founded in 1992 by breaking away from the Football League and every Big Six club has a foreign-based owner who isn't necessarily wed to the traditional structure.
I think they're basically watching and waiting. They know they'll be invited along if it happens, but aren't going to go out on a limb to make it happen. If you don't like the Super League idea, there's some comfort in that, because if they don't come out and back it, it's unlikely to happen.
But it's also in their interest to make this threat real.
Because there is so much at stake in the next 18 months. The international match calendar runs out in 2024. The Champions League structure -- and revenue allocation -- is up for discussion. So is the structure of the domestic leagues. They are a part of these discussions and, if the clubs that back a Super League can put together a credible threat, they'll have more clout. The problem is that for the threat to be credible, they have to come out in the open. The same applies to FIFA.
We've been here before, by the way, in European basketball. In 2000, a number of major clubs split from FIBA, the governing body of basketball, and set up their own competition, the EuroLeague. We even had competing European tournaments for a season. Eventually they reached a compromise and the EuroLeague today is a competition that is essentially run by a small number of clubs who share the revenue and are guaranteed most of the spots. Commercially, it's been hugely successful.
So what's going to happen?
If you want me to speculate, I will. Realistically, for this to occur, you'd need three things: FIFA's involvement, clubs to come out in the open and a whole load of private equity cash.
I'm not sure you'll get all three to fall into place, certainly not as neatly and decisively as is needed for this to get off the ground. But if you start hearing clubs other than Real Madrid talk about how "nothing is off the table" and "we're exploring all options," then be prepared for a fight.