A European Super League – do politicians need to step in?

The breaking news that a group of the most prestigious football clubs across Europe (in reality, Western Europe) are expected to announce the formation of an elite league has triggered widespread reaction across the British (actually, make that English) political spectrum. As Ed Davey put it;

Indeed, all three Party leaders have publicly condemned the proposal.

As a Luton Town supporter, the idea of a European Super League is something that happens to someone else, but, in truth, this is an idea that has been floating around for a long time. The biggest clubs have long ago ceased to be anything other than commercial enterprises or toys for the astonishingly wealthy, with global support bases. The Premier League has been incredibly successful in extending its reach across the globe – kids in Chelsea shirts in Vanuatu or Arsenal shirts in the back streets of Lima, the Manchester United cafe in Mumbai, official airlines, banking partners and merchandise beyond comprehension.

They’re privately owned corporate behemoths, worth billions (Manchester United are currently valued at approximately £2 billion), so have the interests of their owners and shareholders at heart, not necessarily their local supporters. So what role can government have in influencing clubs to stay out of an elite league without promotion or relegation?

I’d suggest that the answer is none, other than to create/maintain a legal framework that protects other teams. Because, if you support Lincoln City, or Forest Green Rovers, or even my beloved Hatters, just to name but three, there are some risks. The loss of income from the occasional cup tie against one of the bigger teams, or the dream of your club playing at Anfield, Old Trafford or Stamford Bridge, those will hurt, but given that most teams at the lower levels rely on a relatively small budget, supplemented by the occasional sale of better players to bigger clubs, it will have less effect than you might fear. Elite clubs will still need to recruit players from somewhere, and find places for their surplus players to gain match practice.

It’s the likes of Leicester City, or Aston Villa, or Fulham, the teams that spend what feels like huge sums to compete with the Big Six, that are most at risk. The inevitable decline in television revenues if an elite league takes off will oblige such teams to find other ways of raising revenue or accept that a Premier League shorn of its biggest draws will not need to purchase such expensive players in order to achieve success.

There may even be some advantages for what might be described as mid-level clubs. The financial gap between the Premier League and the Championship is already vast, with Championship clubs risking bankruptcy on a throw of the dice to get promoted back to the “promised land”. Clubs like Derby County, Sheffield Wednesday and Ipswich Town have run up vast debts chasing the rainbow but, even if they succeed, the prospects of even medium-term survival are often slim. A more sustainable financial model would probably make English football more competitive and thus entertaining.

Perhaps it would be simpler to leave it to the fans. After all, if they lose interest in watching Arsenal play Barcelona every season, the Elite League will fail and, if it succeeds, then it’s presumably what football followers want. And it will probably succeed – American professional sport has virtually no promotion or relegation, teams can be sold and moved by agreement amongst the owners and yet it is incredibly successful financially. I have an uncomfortable feeling that it is going to be a future that we’ll have to get used to…

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35 Comments

  • Little Jackie Paper 19th Apr '21 - 9:34am

    No.

  • Peter Martin 19th Apr '21 - 10:12am

    “So what role can government have in influencing clubs to stay out of an elite league without promotion or relegation? I’d suggest that the answer is none,”

    The Government could insist that British clubs, not just English ones, are run in the same way as German ones. That is with the supporters having at least a 51% voting right. No German clubs have signed up for the new Super League. FIFA does its best to keep Governments away from interference in the game but I can’t see they would have a problem with this.

    At the same time we could improve our national cohesiveness if clubs from Northern Ireland and Scotland could, if they choose to, play in the same league as English clubs. As far as I know, Swansea City, Wrexham and Cardiff City are based in Wales and it doesn’t seem to be a problem for them. So why should it be any different for Rangers, Celtic, and Linfield?

    Probably it doesn’t need any change in the law. Just a push from Government to move things in the right direction.

  • Laurence Cox 19th Apr '21 - 10:24am

    It’s time that the organisations in football called the bluff of the ‘Big Six’. Let the FA announce that no footballer from these clubs will play for England again; let UEFA bar all european players from the “Dirty Dozen” from Euro 2020 (to be played this summer) and FIFA from all World Cup matches including qualifiers. Back in the 1980s we had rebel cricket tours of apartheid South Africa but those players, including Geoffrey Boycott – the leading Test run-scorer at the time, were banned for three years and it ended the Test careers of most of them.

  • John Marriott 19th Apr '21 - 10:35am

    Although I’m a rugby Union man myself, I still check the footie results to see how Leicester City are doing! By the way, I see that they are not one of the chosen one’s in yesterday’s announcement. However, they at least have the FA Cup final to look forward to. The last time they reached the final in 1969 and were beaten by a Mike Summerbee goal they also ended that season being relegated from the old First Division. At least that won’t happen this time!

    I assume that these ‘elite’ teams will no longer be taking part in their respective domestic championships. What about their domestic cup competitions? I note the already excoriating comments from the likes of former Man U greats, Rio Ferdinand and Gary Neville. I wonder what St Gary thinks? I also agree with Mark’s comments about small clubs like Lincoln City, which my younger son supports and whose progress, as a local resident, I also follow.

    It’s a rather lob sided collection of clubs that have already allegedly signed up. Where are the French and the Germans, as surely PSG and Bayern München would easily qualify? Given that mass travel, even around Europe, may take a while to return, if ever, could this kind of competition be sustained from TV rights alone as well as the willingness of billionaires to splash their cash?

    As to Mark’s question, while political intervention might seem attractive, the real clincher has GOT to be the fans. With ticket prices, certainly this side of the Channel, already in the stratosphere and, at least initially, the inability to follow your team to away matches, plus the cost of TV subscription channels, it may come down to their decision as to whether this cash driven extravaganza takes off or not.

  • Little Jackie Paper 19th Apr '21 - 11:11am

    Peter Martin

    I think Barcelona are fan-owned too in some way aren’t they?

    I’ll put my faith in the German model when Munich and Dortmund rule out joining. Not before.

    All of this is the most obvious case of let the market decide I’ve vever seen. Even if sadly I suspect that I won’t like what the market will say.

  • Brad Barrows 19th Apr '21 - 11:31am

    @Peter
    I think any ‘push’ by the UK government towards a UK football league, probably in the face of opposition from the Scottish Football Association – the second oldest national football association in the world – would be more likely to increase support for Scottish independence rather than build ‘national cohesiveness’ as you see it. The UK is a multinational country and trying to replace these separate national identities with a UK ‘national identity’ will have the opposite effect to what you seek.

  • Andrew Tampion 19th Apr '21 - 11:43am

    The only thing worse than greedy owners interfering with football structures cwould be having politicians get involved.
    My understanding based on the BBC website and also Sky Sports website is that this is intended as a replacement for the current UEFA Champions League and that the teams involved would continue in their existing domestic competitions so that there is no direct threat to non participating teams other than the risk that UEFA’s competions may be devalued.
    It seems that the participating, English, clubs need to obtain the consent of the FA and Premier League and if this is refused they could be expelled. However it is unlikely that the Premier League really want to expelled 6 of tye biggest clubs. Apart from anything else would Sky or BT be prepared to continue the current generous payment for TV rights in that case?
    Also the participating clubs will have taken legal advice and it may well be that any decision to expel could be challenged, perhaps under Competition Law.
    But greed is not necessarily exclusive to these clubs. It is reported that some players at these clubs earm £50,000 or more a week; which is £2.6 million per year. Even with the Premier League prize money it is easy to see that for clubs with that kind of wage bill failure to qualify for UEFA competitions could be financial catastrophic, even for a club valued at £2 billion. This is presumably the reason that the proposed Super League is attractive to some clubs. So unless some form of wage cap is introduced by UEFA or the FA then the likelihood is that even if this proposal doesn’t go ahead something like it will in the near future.

  • Well, well…. so Jose Mourhino has got the chop but no doubt will be comforted by his millions.

    The top six ? Bread and Circuses and good riddance if they go. A thoroughgoing inquiry into football finance and tax avoidance is long overdue.

  • Barry Lofty 19th Apr '21 - 1:42pm

    Football in the UK is dominated by richest clubs, as in life,
    and such has become a procession and apart from the supporters of said clubs boring and on the whole predictable, this new venture is just utter greed but I suppose Skye and others will be rubbing their hands! What a shame! but I have come to expect this so called progress!

  • A realistic article Mark. It does indeed look like we are headed towards emulating the way American professional sport is organised. However, to do so would probably need a comparable system to the NFL draft to maintain a competitive league.
    The rot started here with the breakaway of the premier league from the football league in 1992. This is a timeline of how we got here https://www.bt.com/sport/news/2020/october/timeline-of-premier-league-evolution

  • Little Jackie Paper 19th Apr '21 - 2:50pm

    Martin

    It’s not cynical. Not having to qualify and as such risk not qualifying is pretty much the explicit aim. The 12 clubs are talking about some annual qualifying so presumably Leicester could do that.

    But the ESL implies, if I understand it, 18 games minimum and 25 max. Spurs in 2019 played 13 games to get to the Champions League final for comparison.

    So Leicester would need to play 38 Premier League games, 18-25 ESL games, 10-12 FA/League cup games plus players doing internationals.

    That would be a very expensive scale up and I question if many clubs could do that. The squad needed would be very big. Teams might opt out of the cups.

    The whole thing rests on mega corporate sponsors, not fans or probably even TV. We’ll probably end up with something as ghastly as the old split in darts.

  • George Thomas 19th Apr '21 - 2:58pm

    Would be risky to come out too much in support of any one alternative (issues also with current structure and currently suggested alternative) while still need to be able to highlight this is about even greater greed, protection from losing out on global audience even if making bad decisions (Arsenal deserve to be a midtable side because of series of bad moves, Barcelona should join them because of debt management), excluding “lesser” teams from building success and disregarding responsibility to community you’re meant to represent. Generating even greater wealth through greed and who your friends are? Why isn’t that how Tories have run covid contracts recently?

    Regarding an earlier comment, Welsh teams were invited into football League structure (at the time called the Southern league?) because of high crowd numbers in Welsh grounds and that league needing support. Having an independent football league has allowed each to maintain independent football nation status with FIFA desperate to remove that which should not ever be allowed to happen, even though I’m sure Boris and team will seek to push one Britain as part of disrespecting devolution. I witnessed someone shouting “come on England” at London 2012 and another saying they had gone to Olympics party as England so know even the most intelligent of fans get it wrong and considering English FA have previously refused to play Welsh international anthem before not too historical fixture I’m not sure any part of losing that independent football status is deserving of support.

  • Andrew Tampion 19th Apr '21 - 3:14pm

    Martin.
    If the intention is to replace the UEFA Champion L:eague then there is no more need for the English participants to set up EU premises than there is for, say, Russian clubs to set up EU premises to compete in UEFA competitions. The EU and Europe are not the same thing.

  • David Evans 19th Apr '21 - 4:09pm

    There you go. All commenters are men once again.

    Why aren’t I surprised … 🙂

  • Given no one has named a media company (eg. Sky) in connection with this, I suspect this doesn’t have any legs: Without a broadcaster, there is no revenue. I don’t see these clubs wanting to own their own live stream business as that would mean they incur all of the costs with no guaranteed revenues…

  • Little Jackie Paper 19th Apr '21 - 4:29pm

    David Evans

    Worth noting that a women’s ESL was floated yesterday though it got little attention. That would likely have a severe effect on the women’s game for some very well established women’s teams. Lyon and Wolfsburg notably. Possibly PSG. Anyone in Scandinavia.

    Other lower league clubs get support from big club women’s teams – Borehamwood for example. That could be in jeopardy. I’m not sure what happened with CD Tacon.

  • Little Jackie Paper 19th Apr '21 - 4:32pm

    Roland

    Online. Don’t need a broadcaster. JP Morgan has been mentioned – those pockets are plenty deep.

    They don’t really need fans for this.

  • Peter Martin 19th Apr '21 - 5:05pm

    @ Andrew Tampion,

    “The EU and Europe are not the same thing.”

    Well said!

    I wish I had the power to sentence anyone, who uses the word ‘Europe’ when they really mean the ‘EU, to write this out 500 times !

  • Peter Martin 19th Apr '21 - 5:32pm

    @ LJP,

    “Don’t need a broadcaster. ”

    I think you’re right. During recent months I’ve been watching my own team, who currently sit in League 2, on iFollow. So if they can televise their matches and broadcast them on the Internet there’s no reason to think the bigger clubs of the European Super League will have a problem or any need of a company like Sky.

    @ Laurence Cox,

    “…….Players, including Geoffrey Boycott – the leading Test run-scorer at the time, were banned for three years and it ended the Test careers of most of them”

    But , they signed up for a breakaway group voluntarily. The players of the football breakaway teams just happen to find that their employers, to whom they are under contract, have chosen this course of action themselves. So the situation isn’t comparable. It wouldn’t be fair to penalise players by banning them in this way.

  • I don’t see what it has to do with governments or politicians at all.
    And yes, I enjoy football. But I lost interest in the premiership years ago: all about the money. If they want to take their ball elsewhere, let them.

  • Do politicians need to step in ? I tend to agree with Cassie… it’s a way of building up some sort of profile…. though it doesn’t ring true. Back in the old days in ‘Sound of Music’, it was ‘Climb every mountain’. Now it’s ‘Leap on any bandwagon to demonstrate
    how ‘right on’, you are.

    I see de Pfeffel Johnson already has stepped in on the BBC TV news…. wearing his customary flak jacket and white helmet. Is he confusing things with American football where they wear such OTT protection ?

    If I got my way I’d consign said Johnson to a building site for six months to genuinely get his hands dirty and to bend his back with some real hard work instead of mere posing.

    Meanwhile Foodbanks continue to face a growing demand …… Too much circus, not enough bread.

  • Peter Watson 19th Apr '21 - 8:23pm

    I must admit to being a little surprised by Lib Dems opposing some closer integration with Europe 😉
    And as a Norwich City supporter, a Premier League without a handful of the top teams might be one we can stay in!
    More seriously, I’ve long thought that the Premier League could usefully be split in to two (an A and a B), each with ten teams playing each other twice at home and twice away. There would be more of the big domestic matches, less of a gulf between the Championship and Premier B, and end-of-season mid-table tedium would be replaced by promotion and relegation battles.

  • @Little Jackie Paper – Online. Don’t need a broadcaster.
    Yes that is Live streaming… there is more to livestreaming of sports events than just running a simple webcam necessary for Zoom, Teams et al.
    But this requires the clubs making the investment (ie. spending money) rather than having someone else paying them a guaranteed income for n years for the privilege of incurring these costs and taking the risk of getting sufficient people to pay up to watch.

    We shouldn’t forget, as soon as they join this new league, the Sky millions will stop flowing… The question is whether they can convince organisations with potentially deeper pockets than those backing Formula One, to bankroll them.

  • Andrew Tampion 20th Apr '21 - 6:52am

    Peter Martin
    i don’t think that 500 lines, or 5000, would be enough. it’s an embedded mind set.
    The worrying thing is the implication that UEFA, which is a body representing Football Associations across the whole of Europe, properly so called, should be subject to the EU’s jurisdiction. I do wonder what EUphiles would say if Russia required French teams to have an Russian subsidiary to play games in Russia.
    But I think, like David Raw others, that this is not a political matter and that politicians should not get involved.
    Another angle is that this scheme may simply be a way of these club’s exerting pressure on UEFA to get better terms and preferential access to UEFA competitions. I would not be surprised if a compromise was reached which benefitted these teams.

  • John Marriott 20th Apr '21 - 9:09am

    Apparently St Gary thinks it stinks as well. (I discovered a few years ago that he and I attended the same Primary School; but twenty or so years apart!)

    Also, I was wrong about the ‘Big Six’ leaving the Premier League. Now that’s an example of ‘cakeism’ if ever I saw one. So, what do we do if they go ahead? If we could, I would show them the Premier League door. They say that soccer )aka association football) is the nation’s game. Well, this present manifestation of corporate greed posing as sport has certainly united the nation like nothing I’ve seen for a long time.

    The irony is that it has been largely down to foreign capital that we now have bowling green pitches, super stadia and much of the cream of the world’s footballing talent playing on them. It’s just a pity that we can’t produce an international side that might actually win something; but, when home grown talent struggles to get a look in, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Now that might be a case where ‘cakeism’ doesn’t work.

  • David Goble 20th Apr '21 - 9:55am

    Says it all really; this Government can get involved in football very quickly; not so quick to sort out funding for social care, are they? Perhaps priorities need sorting out!

  • @Andrew Tampion – “The worrying thing is the implication that UEFA, which is a body representing Football Associations across the whole of Europe, properly so called, should be subject to the EU’s jurisdiction.

    Not sure what the real basis for your worries are.

    @Martin – “How would employment law work with a European league?”
    Don’t see an issue, it will work just like any other pan-European business consortium.
    Remember it is only the UK who have disrupted its pan-European business by effectively tearing up its agreements with the EU.

  • Never mind all you football fans, Boris Johnson is riding to the rescue of the beautiful game in this country, he will bring his well known integrity and honesty into play in the defence of the common man and at the same time make a useful distraction from all the bad news that he and his government are trying hard to cover up, nothing new there then!

  • @Andrew Tampion – “Another angle is that this scheme may simply be a way of these club’s exerting pressure on UEFA to get better terms and preferential access to UEFA competitions.”
    I think that is a minor part of this. The big picture is as Mark alludes to: the global audience – potentially having more matches that are attractive to this audience – which is why the online/livestream is important.

    So I’m interested in seeing whether they sign a deal with a lead broadcaster (ie. outsource as at present with the Sky deal) or they sign with a technology partner (ie. insource). Given the speed with which they want this up and running and scale of delivery, it would be best to sign with a sports broadcaster – Amazon?

  • Peter Martin 20th Apr '21 - 11:50am

    @ Hugo Young,

    Hopefully it won’t come to stopping players entering the country, but it could be argued that if British workers need their jobs and wages protecting from too much foreign competition then the same should apply to British footballers.

    There have been EFL teams composed entirely of foreign players so, at least on the face of it, it does look to be costing UK jobs. You can only have one goalkeeper on the pitch at any one time, for example.

    On the wider issue, it has sometimes been said that the days of the Nation State are over and we do need to pool our sovereignty to stand up to the multinational companies. But the laws are still quite clearly made by Nation States and they do have the power if they choose to use it. If the UK govt decides that overseas players won’t be given a travel visa to play in the ESL, there is little the clubs and the ESL can do to prevent that.

    Whether, or not, they should is going to be a matter of political choice.

  • @Martin – Yes the UK clubs (like the performing arts) are in a bit of a bind due to the Brexit the Conservatives wanted…
    And double so due to the ESL’s poor handling of the matter so far. With UEFA having good relationships with the EU and European Council, I doubt they (UEFA) will lobby on the behalf of the ESL…

    Also, it seems that whilst FIFA “strongly disapproves” of the ESL, it is going to neither assist nor hinder the formation of the league, letting the clubs “live with the consequences”. So it will not lobby UEFA etc. to support/accommodate the ESL.
    Interestingly, this announcement (by the ESL) makes sense of FIFA’s January announcement that players involved in a breakaway league would be barred from international competitions.

  • John Marriott 21st Apr '21 - 5:36pm

    By the way, I seem to recall that Corbyn’s 2019 election manifesto had something in it about fans having a legal say in the running of professional football clubs. Well, if this is so, they didn’t get it entirely wrong, did they? Or was I imagining it? At my age, you never know!

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