Is the Super League needed to compete with the Premier League?
On April 18, 2021, on the eve of a meeting of the UEFA Executive committee to discuss changes to the Champions League, the European Super League was announced by Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez as a competitor to the Champions League.
Consisting of 12 major clubs from England, Italy and Spain, the Super League would be a closed league, where the best would regularly play the best. The league was created in part to consolidate power and money for the elite clubs and also to combat the growing wealth disparity between the English Premier League and the rest of the European leagues.
Wide condemnation and backlash ensued, and within two days, nine of the 12 original clubs, including all English clubs, quit the league. Only Juventus, Barcelona and Real Madrid stayed committed to the project.
European football was in disarray. There were reports that FIFA had backed the Super League despite publicly opposing it. UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin was furious. He openly called Manchester United chairman Ed Woodward and Juventus President Andrea Agnelli liars.
“Look, for me, I have seen many things in my life,” Ceferin said. “I was a criminal lawyer for 24 years, so I have seen different people, but I have never ever seen people like that.
“If I start with Ed Woodward, because it will be shorter, I didn’t have much contact with him but he called me last Thursday in the evening. He said he is very satisfied with the reforms, that he fully supports the reforms and that the only thing he would like to speak about is Financial Fair Play. Obviously, he had already signed something else.
“I don’t want to speak much about Andrea Agnelli. He is probably one of the biggest disappointments or the biggest of all. I don’t want to be too personal but the fact is that I have never seen a person that would lie so many times and persistently than he did. It was unbelievable.”Quotes via Goal.com
The split had been coming. The biggest clubs in Europe had been pushing for a larger slice of the pie for years and had been calling for Champions League reform that would give them guaranteed spots.
All the major European clubs had been calling for it, but in particular the Non-English ones. The Premier League made a lot more money than the other domestic leagues and increased revenue was needed from European competitions. To them, it was either get more TV money from Europe, or they’d get left behind.
This begs the question, how did this happen?
How the Premier League was formed
Whilst it’s debatable whether the Premier League is the best football league in the world, it’s without a doubt the largest sports league in the world. Nielsen research found that 3.2 billion people watched the 2018/19 Premier League season, and that is likely an undercount. The Premier League TV deal (foreign and domestic combined) is worth £10 billion over the next three years. 30 years ago, it was £15 million.
The explosion of the Premier League has to be viewed within the context of Sky Sports and its revolutionary approach to sports coverage.
The 1980s had been a rough decade for English clubs. Their reputations were tarnished by associations with hooliganism. They were banned from European competitions in the aftermath of the Heysel disaster where Liverpool fans attacked Juventus fans at the 1985 European Cup Final. The First Division (as it was known at the time) was significantly behind Italian and German leagues in terms of popularity and success. They were losing players to other European clubs. Something had to change.
The formation of the Premier League mirrored the formation of the Super League in a lot of ways. After pushing for a greater share of the revenue, clubs met in secret to agree to form a more exclusive league (exclusive in the sense of share of media rights rather than a closed system). They got support from the English FA, and in 1992 they announced that they were splitting from The Football League, the organization which had historically organized the English football pyramid, and formed a new league, the Premier League.
It was a radical change. The Premier League was not attached to the Football League other than promotion and relegation, so they could negotiate their own TV deal. A huge bidding war ensued for exclusive rights to the league, which was eventually won by British Sky Broadcasting, a recently formed television company.
Sky Sports’ Role
Traditionally, football in England had been free to watch. It had been broadcast on ITV which was a terrestrial channel. British Sky Broadcasting were going to broadcast the Premier League on their cable channel, Sky Sports. Customers had never had to pay to watch football before. It was a huge risk.
It paid off.
Sky Sports revolutionized football coverage in England. Sky poured money into the Premier League in a way that hadn’t been seen in European sports. It was marketed aggressively, and the broadcasts were far cleaner and easier to watch than before. Football was turned from a hobby that seemed to be the domain of the hooligans and the hardcore fan, to a product that was accessible and sanitized. They drew inspiration from America to turn the Premier League into an easily marketable product.
All the money pouring into the league allowed clubs to sign big-name players like Eric Cantona and Dennis Bergkamp. Stars brought fans, and stars wanted to play in the Premier League. It became an appealing destination for foreign players.
In 1992, the Premier League only had 13 overseas players. There are now 371 overseas players in the Premier League. The league had a wider pool of players to pick from, and as a result, the quality of football got better.
The league’s popularity grew outside of England as well. Whilst English sides never did particularly well in Europe (it took seven years after the formation of the Premier League for an English club to win a Champions League), Sky Sports marketed the league well. Other leagues grew complacent and didn’t rebrand or change. They expected the quality of the football on display to carry them. The Premier League had a cleaner product and fans from Asia, Africa and America knew more about it. They had more reason to care about the Premier League.
However, the money didn’t translate into continental success. The best of the Premier League never consistently beat the best of the other leagues. Spanish football dominated the 2010s, but La Liga never took off the same way.
That brings us to the modern day. If the best European clubs can compete with the best Premier League clubs, why the need for the Super League?
The financial power of the Premier League
The Premier League makes far more money than any other football league in Europe. Deloitte projects that the average revenue of each Premier League club will be 6.03 billion this season. In the 2020-21 season, the average revenue for each Premier League was near twice the next largest, which was the Bundesliga. Its TV deal is far larger than any other European league.
This leads to outcomes where a newly-promoted club, Nottingham Forest, can spend nearly £150 million on players, which was the fifth largest spending spree in Europe. All of the top five were English clubs. This January Premier League clubs spent the most in a January transfer window ever.
When you compare the numbers between England and the rest of Europe, it gets even starker. Premier League clubs spent $2.46 billion in the summer of 2022. The rest of the top five leagues barely spent more than that combined.
Clearly, there is a problem. The Premier League is a juggernaut that is increasingly hard to compete with financially. But is the Super League the solution?
Are English clubs hypocritical?
One thing is clear, Premier League clubs aren’t dominating. In the last 10 years, an English side has only won a European competition five times. Spanish clubs have won 12.
However, domination isn’t far off. Manchester City has been arguably the best side in Europe since Pep Guardiola took over, and Liverpool have been right up there with them. Arsenal look like they’ll be one of the best teams for the foreseeable future and Manchester United are right behind them.
What’s more, the Premier League has been attracting the best managers for the past five years. A multiple Europa League winner, Unai Emery, who once managed PSG, is managing mid-table club Aston Villa!
The Premier League is using its money to consolidate talent and viewership. To the other big clubs, who don’t want to fall behind, a Super League seems like the natural response. After all, the Premier League was the original Super League. Surely it would be hypocritical for the English clubs and government to oppose the Super League?
However, it’s hard to have sympathy for these clubs. They had every opportunity to modernize their television coverage the same way that Sky did for the Premier League. The Premier League just looks better on TV. They got complacent.
Furthermore, a lot of the problems these leagues have come from an inequitable distribution of wealth. The Premier League has by far the most equitable distribution of money from TV deals in Europe. This has led to a very competitive product. The level of the Premier League is unbelievable. West Ham were in the semi-finals of the Europa League last season and are now languishing in 16th.
Also, it’s ridiculous to think that these clubs are doing it with honest intentions. Pérez and Agnelli don’t care about fairness in Europe as Agnelli recently claimed. They just want more money.
The Super League is not the answer
The Super League was a slap in the face to the very traditions of football. It is fair to admit that football has grown increasingly anti-competitive. But this was not an attempt to address this issue, it was an attempt to make it worse.
A closed league would be a nightmare. None of the players, managers or fans want it. Abandoning domestic leagues, which are the lifeblood are the game, would be disastrous for the average fan. Imagine having to regularly travel to places like Madrid, Paris and Milan for away games. Whilst it sounds nice, most people wouldn’t be able to afford it. It would price out most supporters.
Domestic clubs would suffer drastic economic consequences as TV deals shrunk. Non-European fans would have far less interest in the domestic leagues, and there would be less demand. It’s hard to muster enthusiasm for Wolves vs. Everton at the best of times, let alone if the Premier League is less relevant. Big clubs would thrive; smaller clubs would suffer.
Fans would get burnt out by the constant important games. Part of the appeal of big clubs playing each other is how infrequently it happens. Different leagues have different tactical ideas, and one of the appeals of the Champions League is seeing them clash. It would eliminate part of the hype and specialness of the games.
Fundamentally, the Super League is an anti-competitive idea that shouldn’t happen. Football needs to change, but I do not trust the people behind the Super League to make that change happen. It needs to be more equitable, rather than less.
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