How American Corporate Greed Almost Destroyed European Soccer
Money in sports is nothing new, and European soccer is no exception. With corrupt organizations like FIFA and UEFA and billionaire owners from Russia to Qatar, the United States, and beyond, many fans have become numb to the mind-bending profits top clubs bring in.
On April 18th, that all changed when 12 of the most prestigious clubs from England, Italy, and Spain announced they were founding a new competition, the European Super League, where all clubs would receive guaranteed money every year.
To many, the outcry over the newly announced J.P. Morgan-backed European Super League was no surprise. Massive protests were held at most of the 12 clubs, whose owners went behind the backs of players and coaches to join the new league, which would effectively replace the coveted Champions League for the 12 clubs.
The proposed league would have hampered smaller clubs and leagues and likely financially hamstrung the rest of the sport.
Thanks to the immense outcry from all sides: fans, pundits, managers, players, and politicians, the League fell apart just two days after it was announced, with multiple clubs announcing they were leaving the proposed league and apologized to their fans.
To fans of American teams, this might seem far-fetched: fans with actual power to stop the brazen profiteering of billionaire owners? American fans are accustomed to owners moving teams to a new city, despite any backlash. So, what’s different in European soccer, and will it be able to stand up against the pressure of money?
European Soccer and the American Corporate Greed
The primary gripe of many European fans was the Americanization of the beautiful game. With four founding ESL clubs owned by Americans and J.P. Morgan as the financial backer, the worry of Americanization goes beyond just the format.
Manchester United fans went as far as to burn an American flag in protest of the club’s American owners.
But more than the money or simply just greedy American owners, opposition to the Super League was also about the fundamental difference between European soccer and American sports, merit. While money has poured into clubs in recent decades, a European soccer club needs to win to stay relevant at the end of the day.
Rather than missing out on a playoff spot and ending up with a top draft pick as a reward, if a soccer club is one of the worst in its league, they’re relegated to a league below them. And in top leagues of England, Italy, Spain, and others, if they fail to finish in the top four, they fail to make it to the coveted and profitable Champions League.
This allows for beautiful moments like Leicester City’s fairy tale Premier League title win in the 2015/16 season, and it allows runs in the Champions League from smaller clubs in both big and small leagues.
This merit-based system was fundamentally missing in the proposed Super League. It was a pure cash grab by club owners looking for guaranteed income rather than the performance-based Champions League.
UEFA, the organization that runs the Champions League, and top leagues like the Premier League are not without guilt; in fact, they’ve fueled much of the profit-driven greed that led to the European Super League. And although the league has been defeated, fans are still upset.
Massive demonstrations have been held at multiple clubs, hoping to force their owners to sell the club. One of the most egregious owners, Stan Kroenke, faces widespread calls from Arsenal faithful to sell the club. Kroenke is married to one of the heirs of the Walmart fortune, and he owns the Los Angeles Rams, Denver Nuggets, Colorado Avalanche, and Colorado Rapids, among other sport and e-sport teams.
The American, along with many other billionaire owners, clearly views Arsenal as an investment vehicle. Still, it’s unclear whether Arsenal’s problems would be solved if the billionaire sells the London club. The owner will likely expect a big return for the price one would have to pay to buy Arsenal.
Soccer is the People’s Religion
Some soccer fans have pushed for leagues to emulate the German Bundesliga’s 50+1 rule, which results in club members and fans owning 50% plus one share of the club. Notably, top Bundesliga clubs Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund refused to join the European Super League, in part because fans and club members would likely not approve the move.
Various politicians from around Europe have heavily criticized the botched European Super League attempt. Still, it remains to be seen if the criticism was jumping on the bandwagon and calling out a clearly unpopular development.
Notably, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson threatened a “legislative bomb” to prevent the ESL. But reports had suggested that Ed Woodward, chief executive of Manchester United, met with the Prime Minister days before the league was announced. Woodward was under the impression that Johnson approved of the new league.
Without sustained pressure from fans and players, the underlying structure of European soccer is unlikely to change. But if fans proved anything in the wake of the short-lived European Super League, they love the beautiful game.