Where No Football Team Has Gone Before and It’s Not the Super League (not yet anyway).

The Super League, the final frontier! These are the adventures of the Fenway Sports Group; its 10-year mission. To seek out new sports in new countries. To boldly go where no football team has gone before. (Gene Roddenberry is not responsible for this statement)

Musings of a European Super League are not new in as much as similar explorations of streamlining British football had been looked at as early as the eighties. Indeed prior to The FA and Sky breaking out the Premier League from the rest of the Football League, LWT, an ITV affiliate, had tried in 1981 to corner the market in an attempt to deliver a more attractive product – for more money of course.

Later on a group of clubs including most of the current “Big Six” but most notably including Everton (as opposed to their current hypocrisy), tried to enter into a TV deal that would see only their games televised while they of course kept most of the revenue. 

The transformation of the European Cup into the Champions League in the nineties, followed by the abolition of the Cup Winners Cup, was part of a continuing trend to create an increasing number of top-tier matches that would attract the biggest audiences. 

The G14 (1998-2008) which included Liverpool, Manchester United, and later Arsenal; lobbied for clubs’ rights and its very existence made FIFA and UEFA nervous enough of a breakaway that they negotiated to shut it down while yielding to the formation of the ECA in its place. That organization promptly leaked its idea for a continental league system starting with 3 divisions and 64-66 teams.

So we get to the Super League which surprisingly caught everyone by surprise. Its plans had first been revealed in 2018 by the European Investigative Collaborations network. Many had dismissed them as a negotiating bluff but the fact that JP Morgan was openly underwriting the plans with billions of dollars suggested otherwise.

Even as the new format for the Champions League starting in 2024 was being hashed out it was widely reported that the clubs linked to an alternative breakaway were waiting to see what UEFA would come up with. They didn’t like it and despite not having 3 key members signed on they gave the command to go to warp speed.

For those of you who’ve ever seen “Star Trek III – The Search for Spock” (not one of the better films of the franchise), the launch of the Super League can be compared to the Excelsior giving pursuit to a fleeing Kirk in a broken down Enterprise. The chase lasts only seconds as the supposedly superior Excelsior immediately grinds to a halt, the victim of some very simple sabotage by Mr. Scott.

The Super League was immediately undone not only by fan protests, which leaked documents suggested the clubs were prepared for but by open rebellion in the media and from many players as well. Even Boris Johnson ventured into the fray. Presumably, the founders did not see this coming and the project fell apart almost immediately, sunk by unanticipated opposition as deadly as the microbes that finished off the Martians in “War of the Worlds”. 

So it’s over? – Not even! 

According to Stefan Szymanski, who has studied work on this at the University of Michigan, “There is a huge pent-up demand to see the star players from the top clubs in different countries play against each other—Harry Kane against Kylian Mbappé, Joshua Kimmich against Kevin De Bruyne, Lionel Messi against Mohamed Salah, Neymar against Raheem Sterling.”

The findings show that the 12 founders of the ESL have met 90 times in the past decade in the Champions League which translates into 1.5 matches per team per season. A more in-depth example shows that Liverpool has played the other 11 sides 16 times in the CL in the same period of time (out of 52 matches) while Manchester United has played both Barcelona and Real Madrid only twice each in the last 10 years.

“Regardless of sporting merit,” writes Szymanski, “it seems hard to argue that there is no existing demand worldwide to see games of this type.”

UEFA is having none of it and have been in conversation the last couple of weeks with the 12 clubs. UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin is showing his political skill in threatening to sanction the clubs while being totally mindful that UEFA could fall apart without them. 

Ceferin reached an agreement with the 6 English clubs as well as Atletico Madrid plus the 2 from Milan for a pledge not to pursue the matter in exchange for 5% of their UEFA TV money for 1 season and another pledge for them collectively to donate 15m euros to grassroots initiatives. It’s expected that club owners, rather than the clubs themselves will pay the money in question. The other 3, spearheaded by Real Madrid and backed by a Spanish court ruling, are sticking to their guns that they had the legal right to pursue this. 

This leaves us with the Super League’s remaining trio as a de facto lobby group (and target of UEFA sanctions), a new Europa League format starting this summer, and a new Champions League format starting in 2024. The new-look Europa League has been split in two – designed to get top teams from top countries not in the Champions League all in the same tournament, while the new Europa Conference League mostly hosts clubs from smaller countries.  

The problem for the latter tournament is that Liverpool or another significant English club may well end up there next season along with the likes of Roma, Monchengladbach, Real Betis, and 180 other teams who probably can’t hold their own in the Championship or the Scottish Premier League. But that’s nothing compared to what the CL is expected to look like in 2024.

The 2024 CL format is expected to have 36 teams in 1 supergroup playing 10 at large games based on some kind of seeding, to decide which 12 sides don’t advance to the knockout stage of 24 sides. Far from creating more competitive games amongst the top sides they would play each other in 2 or 3 of the 10 matches and would usually be in a position where a draw would be perfectly acceptable for both sides.

Supporters of the biggest clubs who do constitute a majority of fans (The Big Six constitute 89% of Premier League follows on social media) may hate the concept of Super League but just give UEFA time and they will make the alternative worse. Nobody yet has any idea where the space on the calendar comes from for 4 more fixtures every season, but it seems UEFA is just plowing forward in pursuit of its increasingly large slice of the pie – the exact greed that supporters, egged on by Ceferin, accuse their owners of. 

What UEFA should have done is stuck with the format but made the group stage more competitive by increasing the quality of entrants from the strongest countries. Since the Champions League format began in 1992 (30 seasons) only 1 side not in the Super League proposal or a part of the G14 has ever made the final. That was in 2004 when Monaco were runners-up to Porto, and Prince Rainier probably had enough wealth to buy his way into one or the other.

Expect no change over the next 3 years but a lot more proposals and discussion since UEFA’s changes will now be viewed in light of a potential alternative. Super League organizers are likely to re-float the previously published proposal of a Super League II, potentially of 24 teams, based on the structure of European basketball that has passed the mustard test in European courts. 

A statement from the remaining 3 over the weekend read in part: “We would be highly irresponsible if, being aware of the needs and systemic crisis in the football sector, which led us to announce the Super League, we abandoned such mission to provide effective and sustainable answers to the existential questions that threaten the football industry, the material issues that led the 12 founding clubs to announce the Super League weeks ago have not gone away.”

Meanwhile, Liverpool representatives from official supporter’s branches met with club CEO Billy Hogan on Friday and it’s clear from the feedback of the meeting that attendees were quite unimpressed with what they heard. Like their counterparts at the other “Big Six” in England, Liverpool FC have apologized and made concessions but clearly still have the aim of creating more frequent lucrative matchups. 

If UEFA ends up making a bigger mess of their own plans than the current proposals for Super League sound, then the whole idea is likely to gain more traction and Ceferin may be forced into more concessions to the biggest clubs.
Watch this space …