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The European Super League Never Stood a Chance

A dozen elite soccer teams tried to remake the competitive balance of the sport. They failed swiftly and spectacularly, but it’s naïve to think they’ve learned the right lessons from the debacle.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

History will remember the European Super League as a shambolic enterprise, a supposed multibillion-dollar coup orchestrated by several of Europe’s richest soccer teams against the corrupt national and continental federations that made these clubs so rich in the first place. Seven Days in May for the soccer world, only the Super League didn’t last even half that long.

It was a fun three days’ worth of discourse, though. It’s not every day that a few rich people come up with an idea that generates such visceral and universal hatred. When the European soccer establishment breaks a new trail in the forest of anticompetitive greed, we can expect Gary Neville, the former Manchester United captain turned broadcaster, to use his platform on Sky Sports to cut a wrestling promo on the idea.

It’s somewhat rarer to find allies like RB Leipzig CEO Oliver Mintzlaff, whose club is a pariah in German soccer culture but who rejected the Super League as anticompetitive. Amazon, the American online bookstore–cum–modern-day Pinkerton Detective Agency, likewise distanced itself from the plan. (The Super League would presumably devalue Amazon’s broadcast rights to domestic leagues in England and Germany, making the tech giant’s motives—as usual—murky even in the most charitable reading.) English funnyman James Corden devoted a segment of Monday’s The Late Late Show to criticizing the Super League. Corden outlined the threat a Super League would pose to smaller clubs and the negative impact a lack of competitive soccer would have in smaller communities that view their clubs as a point of pride. The clip went viral.

That’s how bad an idea the Super League is. It got a transatlantic coalition to spring up overnight, as one, and agree wholeheartedly with James Corden.

That coalition put the Super League to bed with shocking alacrity. On Tuesday afternoon, the BBC reported that one of the 12 participants, Chelsea, was preparing to withdraw. A similar report concerning Manchester City followed minutes later, and shortly after that, rumors emerged that Barcelona and Atlético Madrid were having second thoughts. By Tuesday night, all six Premier League clubs had withdrawn, with the two Milan teams on track to join them, and the whole project was put on hold.

When it was announced on Sunday, the Super League was a multibillion-dollar power move set to change the sporting landscape forever. Forty-eight hours later, it was all over but the schadenfreude. Tuesday, as teams started to bail on the league, German soccer journalist Raphael Honigstein recounted a conversation he’d had with a club executive. Honigstein theorized that the Super League clubs must have had some plan to deal with the PR backlash their decision would obviously inspire, to which the official said, “Never underestimate the incompetence of people.”

It’s a good quote, and there’s a lot of truth to it. We’re too often wowed by large sums of money, assuming that anyone who’s rich got that way because they’re clever. The Super League debacle has provided an all-too-rare opportunity to point and laugh at the cast of reprobates who belched the ESL into its abortive existence: choleric titans of industry, fast-talking galactico ringleaders, American banking weenies, Emirati oil barons, and Literally Ed Fucking Woodward. It’d be foolish to let that chance pass us by.

But these people are not incompetent or stupid. Naïve, maybe. Because it’s easy to see why they thought it would work out.

The specter of a continental Super League, in some shape or other, has loomed over the European soccer landscape for decades. The frontmen for these bids have been familiar names from the European game: AC Milan’s Silvio Berlusconi in the 1990s, and Andrea Agnelli of Juventus and Florentino Pérez of Real Madrid were the proponents for the idea’s latest guise. But the concept of cutting off competition and creating a closed cartel that can fix costs and cordon off revenue—American sports leagues perfected this when Berlusconi was on his first marriage.

American capitalism is a powerful cultural exporter. There are kids in Nike running shoes in almost every country on the planet, Fords and Chevrolets on highways from Austria to Zimbabwe, and Marvel movies being screened in dozens of languages. McDonald’s was selling Big Macs in Moscow’s Pushkin Square before the Iron Curtain fell, and by 1997, Mikhail Gorbachev—the general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union—was plugging Pizza Hut in TV commercials.

We can sell just about anything to the Europeans. Why not our hypercapitalistic cartel-based pro sports system?

The thing about the ESL, which was so odious it inspired throngs of protesters to gather outside Stamford Bridge before Chelsea’s game on Tuesday, is that it’s comically more meritocratic and fair than the structure of American professional sports. The Super League would reject the standard European promotion-and-relegation theme by enshrining permanent members and protecting them from relegation. But it would still allow outside teams—five, according to the proposal—to be promoted and compete each season. No major American league—not the Big Four, not MLS, not the top-flight women’s pro sports organizations, not the NCAA—has even this token promotion structure.

In 1920, after a decade of gambling scandals and challenges from rival startups, the two biggest American baseball leagues—the American League and National League—appointed a joint commissioner of baseball to manage so-called organized baseball. In the 101 years since then, the story of American professional sports has been one of consolidation. The National and American Leagues spent the mid-20th century mowing through what had previously been a vibrant and diverse ecosystem of independent baseball leagues. The introduction of the farm system brought the minor leagues into a state of feudal servitude. Integration, while an obvious and undeniable good, had the secondary effect of putting the only other domestic major league out of business within 20 years of Jackie Robinson’s debut.

In 2000, the NL and AL merged into one legal entity. Clubs founded up to 150 years ago as community interests are now franchises, picked up and moved at the owner’s whim, or leveraged to bilk taxpayers out of hundreds of millions of dollars in public money for real estate development. Owners can come together to depress worker pay, whether through capital strikes, wage theft, or illegal collusion.

The other three American major leagues went through similar growing pains, seeing off competitors and consolidating their monopolies on the sport. The result: Franchise values in MLB, the NBA, NFL, and NHL have been exploding for a generation now, and no Big Four franchise has gone under in the past 40 years.

There’s no such security for European soccer teams. As international broadcasting rights have caused revenues and team values to skyrocket in the 21st century, the financial rewards involved have turned success into a mostly self-perpetuating cycle. Rich teams win, make more money, buy better players, and win again, making more money, and so on.

That wealth, however, is no guarantee of success. It’s easy to think of the vagaries of European soccer in terms of teams like Feyenoord winning the European Cup so far in the past that they beat AFC Stegosaurus in the final. But just since 2000, Valencia, Leeds United, and Monaco have all gone from the verge of Champions League silverware to the brink of insolvency in a matter of years, or even months. It’s not uncommon. And maybe those clubs spent beyond their means, but AC Milan CEO Ivan Gazidis claimed in 2019 that the club’s current owners saved it from bankruptcy, while Barcelona is currently freaking out over its €1 billion debt bill.

Not that financial crisis needs to be anywhere near that grandiose. Arsenal and Milan were once near-automatic Champions League participants; now, neither club has qualified since 2016-17, costing tens of millions of dollars per year in prize money, and even more in lost prestige.

That’s not what the American owners of Arsenal, AC Milan, and Manchester United signed up for. Stan Kroenke, the American billionaire owner of the L.A. Rams, Denver Nuggets, Colorado Avalanche, and Colorado Rapids, began a takeover bid of Arsenal in 2007. At that time, the Gunners were at the intellectual vanguard of the sport, three years removed from an undefeated Premier League campaign and just a year and change removed from an appearance in the Champions League final.

Some 14 years later, Arsenal have gone from world power to bougie Newcastle United; Arsenal currently sit ninth in the Premier League table, not only out of reach of Champions League qualification but likely to miss out on the less lucrative Europa League as well. In every American sport, an inferior on-field product isn’t a reason for billionaire owners to make less money—why should soccer be any different?

It turns out that European fans won’t swallow that logic so easily.

The reductive take is that American sports fans know nothing other than Super League–style cartelism; American individualism frequently evinces itself in selfishness and haughty disdain for public goods. Europeans—well, if I type the word “privatization” into my laptop in New Jersey, some guy in France is going to feel a tingle on the back of his neck and park a tractor on a rail line just so nobody gets any big ideas.

More than that, soccer fans connect with their clubs on a far more local level than Americans, who tend to operate more on a regional or even national scale; a baseball fan in Arkansas might get the Cardinals on local TV but go their entire life without seeing a game in person. A soccer fan in London or Manchester could choose a Premier League team on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis and pass the stadium every weekday on the way to work. Even tiny villages have robust entries in the lower divisions, all at least tenuously competitive with Liverpool and Manchester City through the promotion structure and cup competitions.

But the tension between soccer teams as civic institutions and profit-making enterprises recalls the biblical warning that no one can serve both God and money. (Jesus, for what it’s worth, was dead for almost as long as the European Super League was a going concern.) The fan protests are predicated on clubs’ roles in the community, but at the highest level of the game, this is nothing but an extremely lucrative fiction.

Maybe Europeans are more primed to resist further stratification of sports, but the masterminds of the Super League weren’t completely wrong to think they had a chance at forcing more of it through. They’ve got 30 years’ worth of evidence that European soccer fans will accept it.

The Premier League, as a business entity, came into existence in 1992 so that the richest and most successful clubs can siphon off as much money as possible from broadcast fees—to hell with the rest of the hundreds of clubs in the Football League. UEFA’s club competitions—formerly known as the European Cup and the Cup Winners’ Cup—used to pit domestic league and cup champions against each other on equal footing. Starting with the implementation of the Champions League in 1992, however, national federations have been allowed to enter multiple teams, with richer, bigger leagues sending more clubs to the tournament. And over the past 20-odd years, the format has been continuously tweaked to give bigger clubs a greater advantage and greater share of the loot. (Liverpool made the Champions League final four times from 2005 to 2019, winning twice, while simultaneously being champions of absolutely fuck-all at the domestic level.)

And it’s not just soccer. For most of its existence, Formula 1 has been a fly-by-night operation, with teams popping up and going bankrupt at the drop of a hat; of the 10 current constructors, only three—Ferrari, McLaren, and Williams—have been around longer than 2005.

In 2017, an American company called Liberty Media, which also owns the Atlanta Braves, bought Formula 1. In the past year, under Liberty’s management, F1 has instituted a $200 million surcharge for new teams joining the grid, turning the 10 existing teams from mere car manufacturers into possessors of extremely valuable franchise charters. Replacing a revolving door of upstarts with a closed system that enriches established teams is precisely what the Super League was trying to accomplish.

There are other financial benefits to a closed system. Formula 1 has also instituted a cost cap, nominally in the interest of restoring competitive balance, but in truth as a way to, well, cap costs. The cars aren’t going to be as technologically advanced as they once were, but with no outside competition, fans won’t notice. Meanwhile, a Bahrain sovereign wealth fund has bought a controlling interest in McLaren, and an American private investment firm has bought Williams. And in this age of parity, the two American-owned teams—Williams and Haas—are going through much-publicized rebuilding periods, in which they have no designs on being remotely competitive in the short term. Fans of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Arizona Coyotes might recognize this kind of rhetoric.

But these conditions are largely accepted, which is what made the European Super League’s astonishingly fast failure so surprising. Arsenal backed out within 48 hours of announcing itself as a charter member; I’m amazed they were able to find the notoriously reclusive Kroenke to get his approval on such short notice. If there’s one thing American billionaires are good at, it’s ignoring public outrage. Kroenke and the Glazer family, who own Manchester United, might’ve waited out the protests until kingdom come.

But then, on Tuesday afternoon, Chelsea and Man City fled the ESL like it was a burning superyacht, followed by Atlético Madrid and Barcelona, whose president, Joan Laporta, said his club wouldn’t join unless its members—the fans—approved. By night’s end, all six English teams had pulled out as well; the two Milan clubs soon followed, leaving Real Madrid and Juventus with the option of staging a rump Super League, perhaps a viable option given the involvement of Madrid winger Eden Hazard. More likely, the dream of profit without risk is dead for now.

History will remember the Super League as a farce. We’ll all laugh about it in the days, months, and years to come. But the wise among us will recognize its immense value as an object lesson in the struggle between community and capital, and how the imbalance between the two brought us to a point where such an enterprise was—if only briefly—considered feasible.