Soccer's Super League plan is repulsive. But a version of it could be great

Henry Bushnell
·8-min read

The most repulsive aspect of a repulsive plan hatched by 12 of soccer's most popular clubs, who on Sunday announced an agreement to form a self-described "Super League," isn't that it will shake up a sport that adores tradition. It isn't that, as former Manchester United player Gary Neville ranted, "they've got no loyalty to this country and these leagues." It isn't the mere concept of a Super League.

It's the greed. The audacious, unabashed greed.

Sunday's announcement enraged the soccer world. It enraged fans and executives, journalists and politicians, for a variety of reasons. But two aspects in particular were unforgivable.

The Super League clubs have proposed that, for the first time in soccer history, participation in the sport's top competition would be based on status and money rather than sporting merit. That places would be permanently granted, not earned.

And they've stealthily proposed that, instead of using the lucrative popularity of that top competition to fuel and sustain soccer across an entire continent, they'd hoard a larger share of the money. They'd enrich the rich – themselves – and leave the rest to toil amid a pandemic-wrought financial crisis.

[Related: Here's what we know about the new Super League]

But beneath the greed, lost in the furor, they did get one thing right. They corrected an unseen structural flaw that soccer has ignored for decades. The concept behind all elite sport, behind almost every popular league, is that the best teams should play one another in high-leverage situations as often as possible. In soccer, right now, they simply don't. The world's four best teams last season – Bayern Munich, Liverpool, Manchester City and PSG – played 215 total games, and only three among themselves. The vast majority were less fun, less hyped, less consequential.

A Super League would change that. It'd be wildly entertaining. It would, as the founder said, "improv[e] the quality and intensity of existing European competitions throughout each season, and [create] a format for top clubs and players to compete on a regular basis." The broader concept, therefore, isn't one to fight. 

That is, as long as the best teams are actually the best teams, and not simply the "founding members."

And as long as the Super League doesn't kill off everything below it.

Fortunately, the good aspects and the greed aren't inseparable. The plan announced Sunday is far from set in stone. The Super League clubs said they "look forward to holding discussions with UEFA and FIFA to work together in partnership to deliver the best outcomes for the new League and for football as a whole."

UEFA executives will meet Monday and begin to map out a strategy for those negotiations. What they should do is embrace the Super League concept on two conditions: It absolutely must be open. And it absolutely must share more of its profits with the less privileged.

Real Madrid president Florentino Perez is at the head of the new Super League. (Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images)
Real Madrid president Florentino Perez is at the head of the new Super League. (Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images)

Why the status quo can't continue

Why should UEFA embrace the concept? Because European soccer's current trajectory is unsustainable. The rich are getting richer, and the poor comparatively poorer, even without a Super League to codify the stratification.

Technically, top-flight participation and trophies are awarded on sporting merit. But the same clubs end up winning, and going deep into the Champions League, year after year, because spending drives success. And spending is hugely inequitable. In 2019, the English Premier League's top spender outspent its poorest club by a ratio of 10-to-1. In Italy's Serie A, that ratio was 16-to-1; in Germany's Bundesliga, 22-to-1; in Spain's La Liga, 25-to-1; and in France's Ligue 1, 36-to-1. In the Champions League, with minnows like Midtjylland and Ferencvaros involved, the gulf is similarly wide. And it's only increasing.

But it doesn't have to be this way. In North America, salary caps and semi-equitable revenue sharing schemes create parity and wonderful unpredictability. In 2019, the analogous ratios in the NBA, NFL, MLS and MLB were 1.26-1, 1.33-1, 3-1 and 4.6-1. 

The proposed Super League would begin at roughly 3.6-1. If it implements a robust spending cap and healthy payments to non-Super League clubs – who could one day be promoted, and become the low spenders – it could stay in that 3-1 or 4-1 range. It could become the most compelling sports competition on the planet.

A better Super League proposal

In a way, actually, the Super League "founders" haven't gone far enough. Their goal, and UEFA's, should be to give soccer a single summit – on top of its current twin peaks, which are the domestic leagues and the Champions League. Rather than simply usurp the Champions League on weekday nights, in between traditional league weekends, the Super League should rise above everything.

Here's the proposal:

  • The 18 best clubs leave their domestic leagues and the Champions League to form the European Super League (ESL).

  • Everybody plays everybody home and away, in a typical league format. Games occur weekly, in nine different time slots Thursday-Monday, optimized for TV. After the 34-game regular season, the top six make the ESL playoffs. The top two get byes to the semifinals. A grand final then decides the champion.

  • The bottom two ESL clubs get relegated back into their domestic league and the Champions League every year.

  • The domestic leagues exist just as they do now, except without Super League teams.

  • The winner of every top-flight domestic league in Europe goes into end-of-season playoffs (which would be similar to the current Champions League qualifying format). The winner of those continental playoffs gets promoted to the Super League.

  • The Champions League also exists just as it does now, except without ESL teams. The winner of the Champions League also gets promoted to the ESL.

  • Each top-flight domestic league begins with 18 teams, but numbers may fluctuate in subsequent years based on ESL promotion and relegation.

  • Domestic cups – FA Cup, Copa del Rey, etc. – still exist, with games on weekday nights, and become the main secondary competitions for Super League teams. Early-round matchups could be determined by geography to preserve local derbies such as Liverpool-Everton.

  • Super League revenue would be shared semi-equitably among Super League clubs, and with clubs further down the pyramid to prevent further stratification.

  • Super League squad size would be limited to 23 players, ensuring talent is also distributed throughout domestic leagues.

Here's a simple diagram that explains how the promotion/relegation system would flow:

(Henry Bushnell/Yahoo Sports)
(Henry Bushnell/Yahoo Sports)

Money and solidarity are critical

The key, of course, is sorting out the money. But the financial concept is similar to what the Super League founders have already proposed. The Super League would generate ungodly sums, via global broadcast contracts, perhaps with a tech giant such as Amazon. That revenue would be so great, so beyond anything European soccer has seen before, that it could enrich the Super League clubs and everybody else.

The founders, to be fair, said they want to do exactly this.

"The new annual tournament will provide significantly greater economic growth and support for European football via a long-term commitment to uncapped solidarity payments which will grow in line with league revenues," they said. "These solidarity payments will be substantially higher than those generated by the current European competition and are expected to be in excess of €10 billion [$12 billion] during the course of the initial commitment period of the clubs."

That initial "commitment period" is 23 years. The solidarity payments would amount to roughly $520 million per year, which is, in raw terms, more than UEFA currently distributes (some $330 million in 2018/19).

But it should be more. That comparison is deceiving. The pot will grow, and if growth mirrors that of the last two decades, $520 million annually would look meager.

Plus, the revenue not allocated to solidarity payments will be shared among a smaller group of elite clubs. The non-solidarity chunk of UEFA's revenue distribution pie – $3.7 billion in 2018/19 – goes to the scores of clubs that participate in both the Champions League (32-team group stage) and Europa League (48-team group stage). The Super League would get to share its revenue among just 15 or 20 clubs. If you simply add UEFA payments to non-Super League clubs to UEFA's 2018/19 solidarity total, that total would climb above $1 billion, more than twice what the Super League is promising.

That's what has to change. That's what UEFA has to bargain for – for the good of the game at all levels.

If UEFA fights this proposal tooth and nail, with every legal resource at its disposal, all involved will come away wounded. Nobody will win. Soccer will lose.

But if it sits down to negotiate, and the Super League founders concede at least some of their greed, a Super League could actually benefit fans and players at all levels.

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