Owners of rich European football clubs thought a Super League would line their pockets. They failed to consider outraged fans — the ultimate bosses.
Chelsea fans stage a demonstration against the proposed European Super League, London, Britain, 20 April 2021. (EPA-EFE/Frank Augstein)
Unprecedented English fan power in the country that invented football makes it unlikely any European soccer club owners will ever attempt to launch an exclusive elite competition after a proposed European Super League collapsed just three days after it was announced.
Under the plan, Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham were to join Spain’s Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and Barcelona plus Italian clubs AC Milan, Inter Milan and Juventus in an annual competition eventually comprising 20 teams.
The announcement last month was immediately denounced by the bodies that govern European and world football.
But what really forced the owners to drop their plan were the spontaneous demonstrations in England outside stadiums and at training grounds by fans outraged at the proposal to have 15 permanent members of the Super League with no promotion or relegation.
Each season, the three bottom teams in the English Premier League are relegated and three from the second division are promoted.
Thus, the proposed Super League would have resembled the four major U.S. sports of American football, basketball, baseball and ice hockey, which don’t see new, up-and-coming teams added to their list each year or those with the worst records dropped.
European football fans love the drama of relegation and promotion.
The drama generated by the structure of the English Premier League has helped to make it the world’s most popular soccer tournament. It is broadcast in 189 territories around the world to an estimated annual audience of over one billion viewers, with 65% of them in Asia and Oceania.
Cinderella tales of unheralded teams rising through the professional ranks to challenge established powers are part and parcel of the sport’s history in Europe. Millions of fans take a keen interest not only in who emerges at the top of the table but also in which teams will suffer the ignominy of relegation and which will earn heady promotion.
Take Leicester City, a team based in the east Midlands of England. In the 2013-14 season, they won the third division, then the second division to reach the top Premier League. Two seasons later, they won the Premier League in one of the biggest shocks in the history of English soccer, which led to record payouts by bookmakers.
This month, Leicester upset Chelsea — which would have been one of the Super League teams — in the Football Association final, the knockout competition that is the oldest soccer tournament in the world and which features all the professional league clubs plus hundreds of non-League teams.
So many fans saw the Super League as an elitist group of rich teams that would sideline most clubs. What is more, the owners backing the Super League were seen as motivated more by their appetite for money than any love of the game.
“At the heart of the European football, in fact football everywhere but in the U.S., is the concept of promotion and relegation,” said former Reuters Soccer Editor and soccer historian Mike Collett.
“They utterly failed to display any understanding of the social roots of football that have existed in effect since 1888, when the Football League was founded and then the second division with promotion and relegation was introduced. They were happy to stamp on 130 years of history. For what? A concept no one wanted.”
Big U.S. bank was bankrolling the proposed Super League.
Money is the driving force behind most professional sports, and so it was with the aborted Super League.
U.S. investment bank JPMorgan Chase had agreed to underwrite an initial 3.5 billion euro investment to help the 12 football clubs set up the proposed Super League, according to Bloomberg News.
The Super League would have effectively replaced the Champions League, Europe’s current club championship, which generates around three billion euros of revenue each year. That may sound like a lot of money, but it pales in comparison with the estimated $12 billion of income that, according to magazine Sports Illustrated, the U.S. National Football League produced last year.
Organizers of the Super League were hoping its competition would bring in more revenue — including billions through televison rights — than the Champions League, which brings together the leading teams from Europe’s domestic leagues in an annual tournament watched by millions.
Teams in the Super League were also hoping that they would continue to pocket income from their domestic leagues.
Some critics of the Super League said the U.S. investment bank had failed to appreciate fans’ attachment to the longstanding system in European leagues that offers hope, however faint, to clubs from small cities and towns that someday they can play in the big league.
Owners of those clubs may not boast the hefty bankrolls of their exalted peers in the big urban centres, padded by massive TV payouts, that allows them to attract the world’s best and most expensive players. But fans around the world love an underdog, and there seemed little room for longshots in the proposed Super League.
‘Another attempt is unrealistic.’
Still, JPMorgan, which has operations around the world, is no newcomer to European football.
According to Bloomberg, the investment bank’s links to big deals in the sport go back almost two decades. It has advised Manchester United as well as the buyers of both Fiorentina and Roma in Italy, and helped Inter Milan, Roma and Real Madrid raise money, the news service said.
News reports have noted that the owners of three of the English teams that signed up for the Super League — Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool — are Americans who backed another aborted super league project floated in 2009 that would have been bankrolled by another U.S. investment bank, Morgan Stanley.
Whether it was due to sheer greed, misjudgment or a combination of the two on the part of the club owners, the plan quickly collapsed amid outrage vented by fans, politicians and football’s governing bodies.
“The incredible thing to come out of this was the unity of the fans,” Collett said. “It did not matter if you supported Liverpool, Tottenham, Arsenal, Chelsea or whoever, the fans were united in a way I had never seen before in 50-plus years’ involvement in football.”
Collett continued: “The overwhelming opposition to the idea makes it unrealistic to believe any owner in the future will attempt this again. I believe the game is safe from such an unpopular move. This was a total miscalculation by the owners. They totally and utterly failed to understand the fury of the fans.”
Three questions to consider:
- Why were many English football fans upset over the European Super League proposal?
- What was JPMorgan Chase’s role in the proposal?
- Do you think that money plays too big a role in professional sports?
John Mehaffey has worked for four decades as a journalist in New Zealand, Australia and Britain, including 33 on the Reuters Sports Desk covering seven summer Olympics plus World Cups and world championships in athletics, soccer, cricket, rugby, amateur boxing and gymnastics. He wrote extensively on sports news including drugs in sport, the readmission of South Africa to international sport and corruption in cricket. He was appointed Chief Sports Reporter in 2001.