The Rise and Fall of the European Super League

Premier league side Leeds United protests before their match against breakaway club Liverpool.

One of the greatest threats to ever face European soccer appeared and evaporated in just over 48 hours. 

But it did not just vanish. 

The announcement from 12 of Europe’s most influential club soccer teams attempting to create a Super League sent shockwaves throughout the sporting world, permeating sporting conversations immediately. Fans along with players and coaches felt betrayed, incensed, blindsided and more following the explosive decision.

Fully appreciating the motivations and reactions behind this monumental event requires some background on the structure of European soccer, particularly for the largest clubs. Any club in Europe has two primary competitions through which it pursues trophies: their domestic leagues and European competition. For example, English teams like Liverpool or Manchester United play in the Premier League against other teams in England throughout a 38-game season. Barcelona plays against Spanish teams in La Liga, Bayern Munich against German clubs in the Bundesliga and so forth.

The most successful teams have the chance to qualify for European competition largely through achievement in the domestic leagues. The Champions League, the premier European competition, hosts 32 clubs from around Europe in a format resembling the World Cup. Following a group stage in which the top two teams from eight groups of four teams qualify for the knockout rounds, teams play two-legged fixtures up until a one-game final that decides the best team in Europe and arguably the world.

With Champions League qualification comes large sums of money that can climb to dizzying heights allotted by success. For example, Italian club Juventus raked in more than $100 million after the 2014-15 season after just losing the Champions League final. That potential earning induces clubs to spend with the expectation of rehashing the outspend through television rights money the following season. Qualification for European competition has evolved from a boon on the record of a European club to a necessity for the largest clubs, and missing out can have disastrous consequences.

Despite the shocking levels of revenue clubs like Barcelona and Real Madrid record every year, the biggest clubs in Europe face enormous levels of debt. The pandemic has exacerbated this issue for clubs as the largest source of their money, television rights, has leveled off. As adjacent revenue for live match streams dried, the largest clubs faced a dilemma with regards to short-term debt obligations.

These issues culminated in the decision made by these 12 clubs, ultimately a financial decision hoping to add security to a volatile competitive and financial environment. With American leagues like the NBA or NFL, revenue sharing and a closed format stabilize the earning potentials of each team. For soccer teams, a poor season can cost a team tens of millions of dollars. 

With more American owners entering the soccer landscape, the proposed Super League introduces a model similar to that of American leagues. The basic structure involves 20 teams split into two groups or leagues with each team playing the opponents in its league both home and away. The top three teams from each group progress to the knockout phase while the fourth and fifth-place teams play each other for the final spots. Fifteen teams gain a permanent spot in the league with the final five spots left to qualify in a now permanently unknown system.

Each of the founding teams was guaranteed a lump sum of more than $300 million at the outset by American bank JPMorgan, but the league fell apart quickly. Fans argued why a team like Arsenal, currently 10th in the Premier League, deserved a permanent spot in this league over the oft-superior Leicester City. Coaches, players and fans came out in force against the proposition, looking to maintain the façade of a meritocracy in European soccer. After Chelsea and Manchester City pulled out of the agreement, others followed in suit, and the league died before a scheduled match.

However, this is not the end of the European Super League.

This has been a theory floating around the soccer world throughout the past 15 years, and these owners have taken a reputational hit, but they will still be looking to maximize their revenue in the future. Although seemingly finished, the announcement and proceeding cancellation of the Super League left an indelible mark on European soccer and will shape the debate over future restructurings.