These pedigreed programs drive business; fans want to watch them, not Utah State and Western Kentucky. So while they’ll consent to — and benefit from — continuing to play in tradition-rich conferences every weekend, they will form their own super league, play one another at home and on the road throughout the season, secure national TV slots and crown one of their select members as champions.
Let the mid-majors and Northwesterns have their one shining moments. The blue bloods don’t need them. It’s time for something bigger, better and, let’s not fool ourselves, more profitable.
That is what’s happening in Europe, where the giants of soccer are breaking from the conventions of the sport by forming the Super League. The culprits include the six biggest clubs in the English Premier League — including Manchester United and Manchester City — and continental titans such as Barcelona, Real Madrid and Juventus.
Twelve have committed, with the promise of three others, to form a permanent confederacy. None would face relegation; profits would be shared. Five other clubs would come and go, although it remains unclear how they would be determined or whether outsiders would accept an invitation.
There is, of course, already a competition that gathers the best from Europe, one that has entertained and enthralled for 66 years. It’s the UEFA Champions League, which, on the club level, is soccer’s biggest annual competition. Only the World Cup and European Championship, which are contested every four years and involve national teams, capture greater worldwide attention.
The Champions League, though, is not enough for soccer’s elite. They want to play one another — over and over and over again, dulling the charm of the tournament — rather than be pestered by trips to Brugge, Kyiv and Salzburg.
The seditionists say the move is about economics, claiming the coronavirus pandemic has “accelerated the instability in the existing European football economic model.” They say they are “putting the game we love on a sustainable footing for the long-term future.”
It’s mostly about greed. In the latest Forbes valuation of the wealthiest soccer clubs, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United, Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea are each worth more than $3 billion. Clearly, that’s not enough. And beyond profits, they fear the sport’s economic model will damage them more than others.
The blowback to the Super League plans was swift and ferocious. The major domestic leagues joined UEFA, the continent’s governing body, in condemning the efforts, saying: “This persistent self-interest of a few has been going on for too long. Enough is enough.”
The proposal is to mirror the Champions League schedule from August to May, with two 10-team groups, followed by knockout rounds leading to a final that would dwarf the Champions League culmination. The breakaway clubs said they also would establish a Super League for women, though few ever have put much money or effort into the women’s game. (If budgets get tight, guess what gets cut.)
The actual Champions League would lose its long-established pop. Underdog stories wouldn’t hold the same romantic trance without David-and-Goliath showdowns. The joy of Ajax or Monaco making implausible runs to the semifinals, as they did as recently as 2019 and 2017, respectively, would not be the same.
Not all heavyweights are jumping ship. Clubs in the German Bundesliga and French Ligue 1 have resisted temptation, leaving the Super League without commitments from Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and Paris Saint-Germain.
Soccer is so popular and integral to European society that heads of state such as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron spoke out.
Beyond potential legal actions, UEFA said it will ban players from participating in competitions such as the European Championship and World Cup qualifying. FIFA, the sport’s international organization, also could forbid players from the World Cup and other events.
Super League organizers promise to go to court to fight deterrents.
UEFA and FIFA might want to reconsider, because any punitive action against players would threaten the quality of their quadrennial spectacles. It would leave the Italian national team without its core of Juventus talent and Spain without players from Barcelona and Real Madrid — clubs that, in 2010, supplied Spain with 12 of its 23 players en route to winning its first World Cup.
The Super League announcement preempted UEFA’s unveiling Monday of a new Champions League format, but owners of the titanic clubs feel that they are bigger than UEFA, bigger than FIFA, and that the courts would have their backs.
FIFA has acknowledged the economic challenges of modern soccer but also called for “calm, constructive and balanced dialogue for the good of the game and in the spirit of solidarity.”
Thanks to a reckless few, soccer’s solidarity faces perhaps its greatest test.