The Super League’s Existential Crisis

The European Super League, perhaps the biggest debacle in sports history, was born of desperation, and it showed. Twelve breakaway clubs—the largest in England, Spain, and Italy—announced their new competition on Sunday with a logo, a half-finished website, and nothing else. They launched without two of the continent’s biggest teams, Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich, and clearly hoped that they would, somehow, be peer-pressured into joining. They had the backing of one of the world’s largest banks but did not have the one backer they actually needed: a TV sponsor willing to plonk down billions of dollars to broadcast a competition no one had really begun to think through. Although they had retained several pricey P.R. firms, there was no media rollout to speak of. Instead, the narrative quickly was overtaken by a large-scale revolt—fans protesting outside stadiums and players publicly knocking the competition, with barely a peep from the clubs involved. Within 48 hours, the whole thing was dead, though maybe not forever.

Much of that desperation was financial. European soccer is rarely a model of economic prudence, even in the best of times. Its promotion/relegation structure encourages wild overspending, and profits do not always follow. FC Barcelona, arguably the most famous team in the world, is reportedly 1 billion euros in debt. On top of that, Covid-19 was a financial disaster: With games being played in empty stadiums, revenues plummeted; given the fact that these clubs are pathologically unable to control costs, the result was borderline apocalyptic. A closed, American-style Super League, in which 15 clubs were guaranteed high-profile European competition every year—and the eye-popping broadcast money that comes with it—was deemed the best solution. The plan, to the extent it existed at all, was a kind of sports shock doctrine, using a global pandemic to staunch out-of-control losses—and, in theory, guarantee profits some time in the not too distant future.

The desperate situation went beyond Covid, however. After years and years of skyrocketing revenues—each new TV deal larger than the last, with broadcast rights being sold across the globe—there is, finally, a sense that the party may be coming to an end. The leagues already have broken into previously untapped markets like India, China, and America; they already played summer tournaments; they had already agreed to play even more Champions League games than they were already playing starting in 2024. It wasn’t enough.

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