On Sunday, the European game was rocked by revelations that a number of leading clubs -- 12 were named in the press release -- agreed to establish The Super League, a midweek tournament that will effectively be a direct competitor for the UEFA Champions League.
Among them are Manchester United, Real Madrid, Liverpool, Juventus and Barcelona, with the league chaired by Real owner Florentino Perez. (Juve chairman Andrea Agnelli and Man United owner Joel Glazer will serve as vice-chairmen for this new competition.)
It's not the first time such rumours have emerged, but the timing is what makes this situation different. (Editor's Note: this story has been updated to reflect the confirmation of the Super League by the 12 clubs originally reported as involved.)
On Monday, UEFA is expected to approve changes to the Champions League that will include an expanded format, more games and tweaks to the revenue distribution. These changes were agreed only on Friday after protracted negotiations with Europe's leading clubs and the European Club Association (ECA). (They also voted to approve it, sources told ESPN.) All of this would now be overshadowed -- and rendered potentially meaningless -- if Europe's biggest clubs renege on that agreement and are really ready to walk out as early as 2022, as some have reported.
The implications, though, go far beyond this. UEFA isn't merely a competition organizer; it's a confederation whose job is to redistribute revenue and develop the game across the continent. The Champions League is its biggest cash cow, and a severely weakened competition would have a serious impact on the sport throughout Europe, which is part of the reason one UEFA executive told ESPN they were prepared to "fight until the end."
Q: Haven't we been here before? Didn't you write back in October about how we were ripe for this sort of change?
A: I did, but it appeared that the genie went back in the bottle during the ECA's negotiations with UEFA over the expanded Champions League. The ECA wanted more teams and more games (to generate more revenue); they also wanted more governance and oversight over how the Champions League is run commercially, and they wanted changes to the revenue distribution. It took a long time -- originally, UEFA was hoping to announce this reformatting last month -- and it was a tough negotiation, but at the 11th hour late on Friday, the ECA hammered out a deal with UEFA. So you can imagine that when UEFA found out about the potential breakaway on Sunday, they weren't best pleased ... especially since ECA president Andrea Agnelli also happens to be the Juventus president. And Juventus are one of the signatories to this deal.
Q: How would the new Super League work?
A: Details are still sketchy, but on Sunday night, the Super League finally released a statement. (And unveiled their website/landing page.) There would be 15 founding clubs -- 12 have been named, while the other three are presumably Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and Paris Saint-Germain -- and another five could qualify annually "based on achievement the previous season." (That format, incidentally, is very similar to Euro League basketball, which was also born out of a breakaway.)
There would be two groups of 10 teams, with home and away fixtures. The top three in each group go straight to the quarterfinals, while the fourth- and fifth-place teams would enter a playoff for the last two spots. So, in total, each team would play a minimum of 18 games and a maximum of 25. (Right now, the maximum is 13; under the new Champions League format, it would be 17.)
The teams involved also say they will form a women's version of the Super League "as soon as practicable" and that they plan to continue playing in domestic leagues, like the Premier League or La Liga.
More than the format, what matters here is that the clubs would not be playing in the UEFA Champions League and would, instead, share the revenue among themselves. That's a huge departure from the basic model of European team competitions, in any sport, which is obviously different from the way U.S. sports operate.
Q: How so?
A: Take the NBA as an example. There are 30 teams, and each owner is effectively a shareholder in the league. They split the revenues among themselves and put in salary caps and luxury taxes to stay profitable. They don't need to ask USA Basketball or FIBA (basketball's equivalent of FIFA) for permission when they want to do things.
But in European football, clubs play in national leagues that are sanctioned by national federations. In England, the Football Association sanctions the Premier League, and UEFA is a governing body of which the FA is a member that organises competitions for clubs. The bulk of the revenue generated goes back to the clubs, but the rest gets redistributed among national federations, smaller clubs and for grassroots development.
Q: And the breakaway clubs have a problem with this?
A: There's no question that the "breakaway clubs" generate a disproportionate amount of the revenue. After all, more people (and sponsors) will pay to see Barcelona vs. Manchester United than Dinamo Zagreb vs. Club Brugge. They argue they should be entitled to a bigger piece of the pie (and have been arguing this for years, progressively getting more and more). But some also question why revenues that they generate should be redistributed to smaller clubs and FAs. And they say it's about votes and keeping the gravy train going, which to some degree is true. There are more small federations than big ones, and some of the smaller ones would struggle to survive without UEFA funding.
A number of the breakaway clubs also feel that if they ran the competition themselves, they could be more agile and innovative in generating more revenue, perhaps by playing on weekends or taking it on the road to Asia or North America. After all, these are global brands.
I guess it comes down to whether you view a football club primarily as a business to be grown and whose revenues ought to be maximized, or whether you see yourself as part of a greater whole, with a duty of solidarity to others. As I see it, the former is somewhat short-sighted. After all, the next great Real Madrid or Manchester United star could come from Moldova or Northern Ireland, but if there's no functioning FA there because grassroots funding has been pulled, well ...
That said, the statement does say they're confident the Super League will "provide significantly greater economic growth" for football, and there will be "uncapped solidarity payments" that will be "substantially higher" than those currently generated by European competition. In fact, they claim they expect it to be as much as "€10 billion over the course of the initial commitment of the clubs."
Q: OK, so they ARE willing to share...
A: Well, it's a bit vague. For a start, they don't tell you how long that "initial commitment period" actually is. Obviously, €10 billion over 10 years is different than €10 billion over 50 years. Second, if they're benchmarking against what UEFA calls "solidarity payments" -- the funds provided by UEFA to clubs to invest in youth development or local community schemes -- then that total in 2019-20 was €227 million. But, of course, UEFA also withhold some €160m to use "for European football" (their words) and, of the Champions League prize money of around €2.05 billion, another €60m goes to subsidize the Europa League and clubs eliminated in Champions League qualifiers.
More importantly, there are 32 teams in the Champions League; there will be 20 in this Super League. The 12 lowest-earning clubs in the Champions League made some €200m between them; obviously, they'd be cut out of the Super League. So by that definition, that's some €650m generated by the Champions League not going to the top 20 clubs.
It's also not entirely clear how the Super League plans to distribute that "solidarity" money.
Q: So what happens Monday?
A: UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin basically has two options. The vote on the Champions League reform is on the agenda. He can cave in and remove it from the agenda. This would kick the can down the road, and probably lead to more negotiations with the big clubs -- this time, presumably, without the ECA, since we saw how far it got them last time -- and perhaps more concessions in their favour, maybe a greater share of revenue or direct control over the competition or guaranteed places or whatever.
In fact, the Super League statement itself suggests they're ready to sit down and talk with UEFA "to deliver the best outcomes for the new League and for football as a whole," which in turn suggests they're willing to do a deal.
Or Ceferin can stand tall and call their bluff. Approve the Champions League format, call them out by name. They issued a joint statement with the English, Spanish and Italian Football Associations as well as the Premier League, Italy's Serie A and La Liga in Spain saying they will "remain united" in their efforts to stop "a cynical project" that is "founded on the self-interest of a few clubs." And they reminded everyone about something FIFA has said - namely, that players who feature in any breakaway European Super League would be banned from playing in FIFA competitions, including the World Cup.
Q: Wow, that's extreme. So if, say, Manchester United broke away, they couldn't play in the Premier League, FA Cup or League Cup?
A: In theory, yes. They have the power to do that, though it would likely end up in court. There's a legal case to be made that if you're a governing body and a competition organiser (which FIFA, UEFA and the FAs are), you can't exclude somebody from participating. So that part remains to be seen. But I think their best strategy, if they want to stop it, is to wait it out ...
Q: What do you mean?
A: For a start, even though 2022 has been mooted for the inaugural "breakaway season," I don't see how they can make it happen. Even if they're somehow not kicked out of their domestic leagues, there are a bunch of legal and regulatory hurdles that clubs need to jump through.
At clubs like Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern and Borussia Dortmund (the two German clubs haven't signed on to this, but a breakaway without them is hard to imagine) they would be subject to member votes. They're rumoured to have big financial backing -- and, indeed, their statement says the 15 founders will share €3.5 billion "solely to support their infrastructure investment and offset the impact of the COVID pandemic," meaning somebody with deep pockets is cutting them a big check -- and a global deal in place with a broadcaster (not ESPN), but would that be enough to offset potential losses in the short term?
More broadly, I just don't know that the appetite is there from fans closest to the clubs -- the people who go week in, week out.
Q: But isn't the game global?
A: It is, but the reality is that clubs generate more revenue from the creatures of habit who trudge down to the stadium every week than they do from equally passionate fans halfway around the world. In Germany and England especially, there is bound to be a backlash.
Right now, stadiums are closed, but fans will be back before the end of the season at, say, Old Trafford. The Glazers aren't exactly popular there; imagine if their own supporters let them know just what they think of the idea. Optics matter. Unless the breakaway owners can convince them that this is about something other than personal greed, it's going to be very rough for them.
I'll leave you with this quote released today from Sir Alex Ferguson, somebody whose Manchester United credentials are unimpeachable: "Talk of a super league is a move away from 70 years of European club football. Both as a player for a provincial team in Dunfermline in the 1960s and as a manager at Aberdeen winning the European Cup Winners Cup.
"For a small provincial club in Scotland it was like climbing Mount Everest. Everton are spending £500m to build a new stadium with the ambition to play in the Champions League. Fans all over love the competition as it is."