The past couple of weeks in European football have thrown up some interesting scenarios, perhaps unthinkable just a few years ago, which have thrown into question the competitiveness and balance even in the leading domestic leagues around Europe.
When Chelsea loaned Thibaut Courtois, then one of the hottest goalkeeping talents in the world, almost three years ago to Atletico Madrid, surely they didn’t expect to have to waive a contract clause at the prospect of facing their loanee in the Champions League semifinal.
When Borussia Dortmund won the Bundesliga and upset the status quo just a few years ago, surely they didn’t expect that a comprehensive 3-0 win over Bayern Munich in the league would mean as little as it just did, given that Pep Guardiola’s side had just become the quickest team ever to win the German championship.
These are but two incidents that have reflected the reality of European football these days (and there are many more—think Bayern’s ruthless snapping up of Mario Gotze and Robert Lewandowski from Dortmund, supposedly their closest rivals).
And the reality is that, while the top-tier leagues, especially in England with the Premier League, have started to break away from their lesser domestic competitions, those cream-of-the-crop clubs at the top of the European game have begun to form a mini exclusive club of their own.
Perhaps it’s time to consider not whether a European Super League would be a fun and interesting side project for club owners to think about, but whether it is actually an inevitable next step in world football.
Booming broadcast and television revenues
It’s hard to point a finger at a definitive starting point for this spiraling breakaway of the European elite, but BT Sport’s staggering £897 million three-year exclusive deal to broadcast live Champions League and Europa League games starting from 2015, announced last November via BBC Sport, is a good start.
Given the amount of money involved in the European game, it’s no surprise that the likes of Arsenal and Liverpool have made qualifying for the Champions League essentially a barometer of their season-to-season success in the Premier League.
Of course, it’s a cyclical game—perhaps even a snowball effect—in which money drives commercialization and encourages clubs and league administrators to package the sport as a “consumer product,” which focuses on entertainment value in the form of stadiums, overall team play and individual superstars, which boosts widespread interest and thus potential income, and so on.
But it’s not as if those involved in the beautiful game at the top level are trying their level best to keep the game devoid of any adverse effects from the money involved. Far from it.
Just this January, the Telegraph reported that the Premier League wanted to bring forth the next “auction” of football broadcasting rights by six months, which sources allegedly claimed was a show of “opportunism” from the league in “attempting to exploit the fierce competition between BSkyB and BT, and the resulting increase in the value of sports rights.”
As the game of football evolves at the top level and clubs become ever more like global corporations, even the ordinary football fan has evolved into being a consumer from their clubs’ point of view.
And how do businesses engage with their consumers? By providing high-quality goods (in this case, high-quality performances with a dose of superstardom, delivered at every broadcast opportunity across every possible channel).
A further case illustrating the financial explosion of the modern game once again focuses on the aggressive increase of Premier League prize money: A Telegraph report in May 2013 mentioned that Manchester United’s £60.8 million in TV money, a record sum for a Premier League champion, would be eclipsed the following season by the club that finishes bottom of the league because of new broadcasting deals.
Exponential inflation of player valuations
The sheer amount of money involved in top-level football highlights the indispensability of the sport to TV networks and channels, which in turn drives up their bids to carry these matches.
But from both the clubs’ and the fans’ points of view, this is merely a reflection of an ever-increasing and ever-vociferous demand for the sport—especially as clubs and leagues are becoming more business-savvy and expanding into markets never previously thought lucrative or even possible.
Which means that top-level footballers and top-level coaches, who turn top-level footballers into top-level teams on the pitch, gradually become a premium commodity to be traded to those willing to shell out a fortune in anticipation of the potential upsides.
And so we have eye-watering deals like Gareth Bale’s world record transfer from Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid, who themselves set the previous record by signing Cristiano Ronaldo from Manchester United. And vastly inflated contracts like Wayne Rooney’s new extension at Old Trafford, which reportedly will land him a mammoth £300,000 a week, per BBC Sport.
Suddenly, the prevalence of money in the modern game has made it an essential part of both player decisions and transfer strategies. Players appoint ruthless agents to extract the best deal for themselves and their clients, while clubs head towards the murky waters of outbidding each other for star names.
The supply line has just shot up in value.
And those organizations who can afford to shell out the big bucks to procure such mercurial and overpriced talent—some through the generosity of a well-off benefactor—become the most important players in the financial game of football.
It’s no surprise, then, that Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski put forth in Soccernomics that football clubs in capital cities are best positioned to dominate the European game in the future: Take the financial “capital” in the cities and you instantly have the most powerful hybrids of money, geography and power across football clubs in Europe.
A whole new, exclusive playing field
Where does this bring us?
On the one hand, the growing demand of top-level football means that there will only ever be greater sums of money spent by fans and reflected in megadeals between leagues, clubs and broadcasters.
On the other hand, the explosion of player valuations means that agents will continue to grow in prominence and importance, while player power will entrench itself as an institutional concept in modern football—and only a handful of football clubs are even equipped to handle such major deals.
Which essentially means that the footballing world is their oyster.
As players vie to get into those clubs as a sign of their ability and ambition and as clubs strive to either maintain their place in that elite group or try their utmost to break into the oligarchy, a whole new, exclusive playing field has taken form for the big boys up top.
La Liga has traditionally been the easiest and most glaring example of a “top two” league, with Barcelona and Real Madrid maintaining a hegemony on proceedings in Spain until Atletico burst onto the scene this season, while recently Bayern Munich has become a textbook example of just how far a first-placed team can pull away from its closest challenger.
Sooner or later, as egos, ambitions and competitiveness are wont to trump all in sport, these big players will yearn for a platform where they can pit their wits against each other on a regular basis, to claim a title that will truly prove their dynasties.
The concept of a European Super League suddenly doesn’t sound so far-fetched after all. In fact, it almost sounds as if it’s going to be the next big evolution in world football.
And just as TV networks have continued to scramble for big broadcasting deals just to get a slice of the ever-growing pie, football clubs not yet in the “Super League” category will fight tooth and nail, and spend an arm and a leg to try to get there.
There will be plenty of new entertainment for football fans—and plenty of inadvertent and unfortunate financial casualties as well.