JP Morgan supplies 4.8 billion dollars in cash. Three old, white, American billionaires who hold majority ownership in European businesses call the shots. A crazy 74-year-old Spaniard wants to attract 18- to 24-year-olds by disrupting an old industry. No, this is not the latest multi-billion dollar merger & acquisition deal on Wall Street.
This was the attempted upheaval of the world’s most popular sport.
A group of 12 big European soccer clubs stealing the lunch money of their unpopular, poorly dressed, scruffier rivals on the playground, bulldozing the school, shutting the iron gates behind them, and then galloping away into the sunset on circus show ponies — a circus bankrolled by American money, that is.
On Sunday night, a dozen of the most famous brands in professional sports — Real Madrid, FC Barcelona, Atlético Madrid, Inter Milan, AC Milan, Juventus Turin, Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham, Manchester City, Manchester United and Liverpool — announced they would “breakaway” from the Champions League, the flagship pan-European soccer competition organized by UEFA, the continent’s governing body of its most popular sport.
These dozen clubs from England, Italy and Spain said “gracias, pero no” to another year of plane travel to the Ukrainian war zone city of Donetsk to play Shakhtar. They turned down the chance to play Midtjylland in a tiny stadium in Denmark (a place where Liverpool failed to win in December, to be fair). They would no longer split television revenue with clubs from countries like Russia, Turkey or Greece.
Instead, they announced, in somewhat pompous terms, that they were the 12 “founding members” of what they named the “Super League,” a new competition where 20 of the biggest brands in soccer would play each other home and away in two separate conferences of ten teams each — before the best four teams of each conference battle it out in playoffs at the end of the season.
Are you scratching your head or murmuring an “aahhh” of recognition yet? Well, you should. Because the proposed Super League of soccer — a competition that its dozen founders do not need to qualify for by doing well at their sport and cannot be relegated from for performing poorly — sounds a lot like the NBA, NFL, NHL or MLB.
Indeed, a third of the Super League founding clubs are American-owned. The Boston-based Fenway Sports Group, which also owns the Red Sox, acquired Liverpool FC in 2010 for $420 million dollars. A year later, LeBron James bought a 2% stake for $6.5 million. The Glazer family, who also own the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the NFL team Tom Brady plays for, happen to control Manchester United (where they are so fervently despised by local fans that a group calling itself “the Red Knights” tried to buy back the shares).
“The U.K. and the United States are two places divided by one language,” the old saying goes. It would be fair to add they are two populations divided by a shared love of sports.
But whereas football fans in Massachusetts attend “Gillette Stadium”, watch touchdowns brought to them by Dunkin Donuts, and drown tortilla chips in artificial cheese and salsa every January while watching minutes on end of tv commercials glued to their screens, British football fans would never tolerate Justin Bieber singing at half-time. The English love their Queen, but Premier League footballers don’t sing “God save the Queen” before kick-off. Penalty kicks are not sponsored by English breakfast tea brands. The team from Sheffield is called “Sheffield United,” the team from Liverpool’s Everton neighborhood is called Everton. There’s no “Sheffield Sheep” or “Everton Elephants” on the old continent. And in a league with 20 teams, the four best qualify for the Champions League at the end of the season, while the three worst get relegated to the division below.
That, however, is a nuisance to American owners whose NFL or NBA teams can never get relegated and therefore are at no risk of losing hundreds of millions of dollars in tv revenue due to something they cannot directly influence: their team’s on-field performance. If only the antiquated art of European ball-kicking could be professionalized, digitalized, monetized — in other words, Americanized — then the return on investment for these clubs’ foreign billionaire owners would grow rapidly. And the customers (rather than supporters) could eat popcorn and drink Bud Light in the stands while they consume the content of Arsenal playing Barcelona (rather than Burnley).
JP Morgan agreed that this was a fabulous plan — and decided to support it to the tune of 4.8 billion dollars — money they loaned at a 2-3 % interest rate to the 12 clubs. The clubs would be co-owners of the league and share in its profits — estimated to be around 300 – 400 million euros in the first season. For comparison, Bayern Munich, the German team who won the Champions League last season, collected 120 million euros in winnings from that competition. Overnight, Juventus Turin’s shares rose by 12 %, Manchester United’s by a whopping 18 %.
The prospect of the biggest brands in the biggest sport uniting to standardize salaries, merchandising and to play each other week in, week out, seemed irresistible.
But while the markets cheered, fans sneered. In countries where the pandemic is still killing thousands each day and only a fraction of the population has been vaccinated, fans left homemade messages of despair outside the grounds of their beloved clubs. “We adored you and you sold our souls: RIP Manchester United,” a banner said in block letters outside Old Trafford. In London, fans scribbled “Give Us Our Arsenal Back” on a moving box and squashed it between the outreached hands of a former player’s statue who kneels, seemingly begging, in front of the club’s stadium. From the sidelines of his grandfather’s funeral, Prince William weighed in that he “shared fans’ concerns for the future of football.” Never since the 2016 election of Donald Trump to the American presidency had a news event beyond Europeans’ control so united a distraught continent.
The super league may have been stopped in its tracks for now however they do raise an important question. Is Americanization of the World’s Favourite Game unstoppable? Only time will tell…