Since the 1980s there has been intermittent talk of a Superleague, but positive comments made last week by Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, CEO of Bayern Munich and Chairman of the European Club Association, and by Christian Seifert, CEO of the Bundesliga, suggest that some planning has already taken place. It’s especially surprising that the head of a league which would potentially face a competitive threat from a Superleague should be making favourable noises, not least because the Bundesliga is very conservative.
I’ve argued for a Superleague for many years, going back at least to a paper I wrote with Tom Hoehn in 1999, mainly since my view is that the current structure leaves a lot of money on the table for no good reason. The argument goes like this- as Florentino Perez said a few years ago sports fans are attracted by a competition that “guarantees that the best always play the best.” In European football there are four big leagues with strong teams, as well as a few strong teams in smaller European leagues that do not get to play each other often because of the structure of European competition. A superleague is simply a league structure which ensures that the top teams play each other regularly. The games would attract big audiences and so broadcasters would pay a lot of money to show them.
I have illustrated the lost potential in a previous blog, but here’s another illustration. The four biggest leagues in Europe are the English Premier League, the German Bundesliga, Spain’s La Liga and Italy’s Serie A. The main venue for competition for the top teams from different countries is the UEFA Champions League. In the last decade the two teams with most appearances in that competition are Arsenal and Chelsea, Bayern Munich and Schalke 04, Barcelona and Real Madrid, AC Milan and Internazionale respectively. In the last decade they have met in the Champions League for a total of 85 games. Add to this the fact that every season each domestic pair played each other home and away in the domestic league and you get another 80 games, so 162 games in total. If these 8 teams participated in a league competition which they played each other home and away every season, then over a decade they would have played 1120 games: this is almost seven times as many.
In 2014/15 UEFA paid out just over €1 billion to the 32 participating clubs in 125 games from the group stage onwards, or just about €800,000 per game. However, for the games from the Round of 16 onwards they distributed €4.3 million per game. This was not out of generosity, but out of recognition that these were the most attractive games involving the biggest clubs. If the eight clubs could sell an eight team league competition for €4 million a game they would generate €448m per season, or €56 million each, almost exactly the same as the sum of the eight largest payouts in 2014/15, but without any of the uncertainty of knock-out competition. However, if they expanded this to an 18 team league, generating 306 games per season, then they would generate €1224 million, an average of €68 million risk free (in 2014/15 only Juventus made more than €68 million, the 8th biggest payout was €43 million, and the 18th largest was €22 million).
But I think a broadcaster might pay far more than this. It would be a very attractive product to market across Europe, and would suite a broadcaster such as ESPN which has struggled to enter the European market, or even a company like Google or Facebook, which have looked at the potential of European football already and have large cash piles to spend. The focus on the dominant clubs would become even more intense. Next year the English Premier League will generate about €3.5 billion per year from domestic and overseas broadcast rights, and so a European Super League would look inexpensive at €2 billion, more like €90 million per club.
The point is that the biggest clubs can generate more revenue by playing each more often. Recently I met Sean McGuire, the MD of Oliver & Ohlbaum, one of the leading sports right consultancies, who described some research they had done showing that the TV audiences for the largest clubs are much bigger than for anyone else, and are attractive across the entire European market and beyond.
Many questions remain about how this would be done. My guess is that the big clubs, especially the Premier League, would not abandon the domestic league and so would want to play midweek. They would play in midweek for the entire season, so squads would become even larger and players would become more specialized between weekend and midweek. Domestic cup competition would probably be dropped. The international calendar would also be a problem, but compromises are possible.
There are good reasons that this might happen now. World football is in disarray and the big European clubs probably would like to take more control of their destiny. Rummenigge recently expressed concern that the Premier League’s new TV deal “poses a great threat to all other European leagues”, and may now see a Super League as the only way to compete.
Would UEFA run the league as they currently do the Champions League? The talk is not coming from them, and in the past UEFA has only restructured competition as a way to prevent the creation of a Super League. In doing so they have balanced the interests of the big clubs with those of the small clubs, much as the English Football League did for the 92 professional English clubs before the big clubs broke away to form the Premier League to keep the broadcast money for themselves. It’s not impossible that UEFA could think up a new version of the Champions League, but it would presumably have to look like the structure described here. With the UEFA president in disgrace and the General Secretary campaigning for the FIFA Presidency, this is a difficult time for the organization.
Would the Super League have promotion and relegation? I think the big clubs would choose a closed league left to themselves, but there would be strong political pressures. Bearing in mind that there are probably no more than ten truly elite clubs who are the main players, then if the league is large enough (say, 18) a system which demoted the bottom club every year would not make them feel too threatened. How to choose a team to promote from across Europe would be an interesting problem.