- 12 of Europe’s richest soccer clubs tried – and failed – to form a breakaway “Super League.”
- The ESL would have marked a move in the direction of American sports, which experts say are more “socialist” in structure.
- Fan backlash led to a quick collapse. “These Super League guys didn’t do their homework,” Andrei Markovits said.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Last Sunday night, the shock announcement of a breakaway “Super League” signaled that European soccer was about to get a whole lot more American.
That is, until a global backlash spanning everyone from the media to die-hard fans spurred a quick collapse.
A series of shock events over a roughly 48-hour period saw nine of the 12 ultrawealthy soccer clubs that wanted to form the league pull out, but that wasn’t the only unexpected development. Fans were furious that their favorite clubs were going to get richer from this arrangement, and they lambasted them for turning their backs on the current league structure, which is widely seen as problematic.
Prominent former players announced their own disgust.
“Manchester United, 100 years, borne out of workers from around here, and they’re breaking away into a league without competition that they can’t be relegated from? It’s an absolute disgrace,” respected football commentator and longtime Manchester United player Gary Neville said Sunday on Sky TV.
Still, even Neville said the current capitalist status quo isn’t perfect, and that competition has to “evolve.”
The casual American fan may be looking on with more than a little confusion. After all, why wouldn’t fans want a league that regularly pits Europe’s most famous and historically successful clubs against each other? To understand the outrage, you have to understand the economics of the European “football pyramid” and how an “American-style” closed competition clashes with more than 100 years of tradition.
Most fans want the biggest and wealthiest clubs to play against each other more regularly, as the Super League promised, but not if it means embracing what experts call a “socialist” structure that resembles American sports. They would rather have the inequality they’re used to in their domestic leagues, where a lack of coordination pits clubs ruthlessly against each other, and paradoxically results in less of the “competition” that prominent voices like Neville defended in the wake of the Super League announcement.
A closed competition vs. a football pyramid
The National Football League, Major League Baseball, and National Basketball Association all operate as closed systems, where teams can’t be kicked out.
American leagues are effectively set up as single corporate entities, with all their teams operating as subsidiaries, or franchises. The barriers to entry are so high they’re impassable. And when new clubs have formed in US sports history, they have formed within rival leagues, such as the USFL of the 1980s, which featured former President Donald Trump as an owner. It doesn’t exist anymore.
It’s not like that in Europe, where every club is treated as an independent corporation that is loosely affiliated in a competitive league format. If that club is mismanaged, it can lose money and get “relegated” to a second division, playing against relatively poorer clubs. This is the “football pyramid,” which in England, for example, features the Premier League at the top, with several divisions underneath it.
Theoretically, a club at the base of the pyramid could make it all the way to the top if it has good enough players. Something almost like this happened just a few years ago, when Leicester City won the Premier League against very long odds. But a so-called big club can tumble down the pyramid or even go bankrupt and enter administration, as happened with Leeds United in 2007.
The league’s most popular and well-funded teams face little risk of falling down the ladder. But the odds are exponentially higher for the smaller teams dotted throughout the UK. Those clubs, and their fervent fan bases, compete with a nearly constant threat of complete failure.
“Once you take away that hope the promotion-relegation system gives you, what will keep these [smaller] clubs alive in the future? The answer is ‘nothing,’ they’ll just die out,” Stefan Szymanski, co-author of “Soccernomics” and professor of sport management at the University of Michigan, told Insider.
The risk of relegation and, perhaps more importantly, the hope that an underdog can ascend the pyramid are what make football a cultural mainstay in England, Szymanski said. Even if the odds of promotion are small, that opportunity is what keeps local teams alive, he added.
“When it comes to sports, the American system looks decidedly socialist, and it’s Europe that looks like the land of opportunity,” Szymanski said. “This is the cartelization of European soccer. It’s formalizing a cartel amongst the elite teams.”
‘Xenophobia has a field day’
The fact that the closed system can be traced back to the US also poses a huge issue to European fans, Andrei Markovits, author of “Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism” and a professor of German Studies and comparative politics at the University of Michigan, told Insider. Transitioning the continent’s biggest teams from century-old league structures to one championed by Americans would spark intense feelings of erasure.
“What it means is that xenophobia has a field day … whatever you don’t like, you immediately make it American,” Markovits said. “This is literally anathema to millions of people.”
Even the business case for a closed league is short-sighted, the professor added. A league that represents the peak of international competition “should be soccer’s notion of upward mobility,” the professor said. Closing the Super League off from UEFA’s existing structure eliminates the appeal of teams fighting to stay in the highest ranks. That stands to drag on revenue as fans grow less interested because of a diminished sense of competition.
Although soccer has a global reach, local fans are still every club’s lifeblood. Their backlash will likely be the nail in the coffin for a fully closed model, whether it’s the Super League or a future offering, Markovits said.
“Sports fans are literally the most conservative, most parochial, most tribal beings … who will not agree to this,” he added. “These Super League guys didn’t do their homework.”