Sports

European Soccer’s New Gambit Is Following American Football’s Playbook

The biggest clubs have spent decades modeling their business after the NFL. Now they’re taking a page from college football to get richer than ever.

Two soccer players reach their legs toward a ball that seems to be flying toward the net, where a goalie is waiting.
A UEFA Champions League match between Liverpool and Barcelona in Liverpool, England, on May 7, 2019. Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Twelve of Europe’s biggest soccer teams are plotting a move that would remake the highest tier of club competition. In the process, they’ve infuriated their own fans, their peers in their own domestic leagues, FIFA, the prime minister of the United Kingdom, and the president of France, and … if I tried to make this a complete list, I would run out of pixels.

Those clubs announced plans on Sunday to break away from the widely adored, hugely watched, enormously remunerative UEFA Champions League and form their own international competition, the European Super League. Their plan is for 15 teams to get automatic annual spots in the competition, with five more slots to be up for grabs based on performance. The 12 teams behind the move are the big legacy clubs in England, Italy, and Spain: Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham, AC Milan, Inter Milan, Juventus, Atlético Madrid, Barcelona, and Real Madrid. They plan to add three more and are targeting their peers in France and Germany, most prominently Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich, which have so far held out. The group has lined up a $6 billion underwriting from JPMorgan Chase to get the project off the ground via loans to participating teams, ESPN reported.

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For these clubs, the move would achieve two things. First, it would eliminate the risk of missing out on any year’s Champions League payday by having a down season. Second, it would increase the pay itself a lot, at least at the beginning. The founding clubs would get more than $400 million per team as part of the launch, more than four times what even the European champion got last year.

It isn’t clear yet whether the plan will succeed, or if success means launching the new tournament or just getting concessions out of the Champions League, which is about to formally expand from 32 to 36 teams. With just about every other major organization in global soccer already lined up against the Super League, the 12 renegade clubs are facing a collective threat that they’ll be barred from their domestic leagues if they go ahead with their plan.

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Something that is much clearer is that Europe’s most prestigious clubs have long been on a path to try something like this and they’ll try again if this bid doesn’t work out. We know that because European soccer has been following a playbook established by teams playing a different variety of football: the American kind. The soccer clubs’ attempted smash-and-grab of a heavy sack of television money is a perfect facsimile of the decision-making of America’s football powers.

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The modern era of European football kicked off 1992, when the English “Big Five” clubs (Manchester United, Liverpool, Tottenham, Everton, and Arsenal) broke from the giant and relatively noncommercialized Football League to start the Premier League.

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While plotting their new venture, English soccer bigwigs looked across the Atlantic for inspiration. Three of the big club executives from those days—Arsenal’s David Dein, Manchester United’s Martin Edwards, and Tottenham’s Irving Scholar—admired the NFL’s business and had sampled the American game in person. Dein was a fan of Don Shula’s Miami Dolphins, while Scholar was close with O.J. Simpson and had gone to a New York Jets game with Edwards, who later dressed United in kits that looked a lot like the then–Los Angeles Raiders’ uniforms.

These connections and more are chronicled in The Club, a definitive history of the Premier League’s rise. In that book, Wall Street Journal journalists Jonathan Clegg and Joshua Robinson chronicle how the Premier League’s founders hatched it with TV in mind. Broadcast partner Sky Sports put on long pregame and postgame shows that made each televised match an NFL-like event. Premier League teams, at Dein’s urging, made their stadiums (especially their bathrooms) less primitive and sought to turn them into American-style entertainment venues. The new league even tried out cheerleaders in its early days, though that idea did not translate across the ocean.

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Though the NFL cares a lot about attendance, licensing, merchandise, and any other line of business it can dream up, its golden goose is television. And it turned out the only group in the world that understood that as well as or better than the NFL did was the Premier League. Clegg and Edwards calculated that the Premier League’s 20 clubs grew their value from a combined $100 million in 1992 to $15 billion in 2018, an increase of about 15,000 percent. As English teams grew richer and richer and became a major force in UCL competition, other leagues came to mimic them the same way the English had mimicked the NFL.

If the NFL is the best business analogue to European soccer, college football might be its closest cultural match. The two share about a million similarities, not the least of which is the tribalism of their fans. Both European soccer and American college football turn little towns that would be mostly anonymous into places millions of people know. Fans in both sports put a heavy premium on not just results but their teams’ style of play. Soccer’s transfer day shares a lot of the chaos of college football’s signing day, although the player compensation levels are wildly different. Fans in both sports take unusual delight in beating their rivals, in part because they play them only once or twice a year as opposed to several times in other sports.

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College football, as it turns out, also helped lay out the path European soccer is now following. Football was always the sport that bankrolled the rest of the athletic department, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that college football became the mint it is today. It was then that a handful of teams went to the Supreme Court to break the NCAA’s grip on football TV rights, ultimately forming a breakaway group of their own to assert control of their broadcast rights after they tired of sharing the spotlight (and dollars) with less popular universities. The haves and have-nots have since solidified into two groups: the “Power Five” conferences (where schools get tens of millions of dollars a year each) and the “Group of Five” (where they typically get a few hundred thousand apiece).

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In the late 1990s, football’s superpowers formed a two-team playoff system, the BCS, that included automatic blue-chip bowl bids for the champions of all the power conferences and further widened the gap between the two classes. The sport then went to a four-team playoff that turned up its nose at nonpowers the same way the old system did. All the while, the biggest schools—kind of college football’s own Super League by another name—lined their pockets more and more, no matter whether that was good for the sport or not.

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European soccer has now reached the equivalent stage of its own journey––the one where the teams that command the biggest TV audiences bend the competition format to their own financial will, even if it means making the game less enjoyable for millions of fans. In that sense, the big clubs are taking one of the worst pages from American football’s business book. They’re also borrowing from Major League Baseball, where clubs have realized they don’t have to try that hard to win in order to make a healthy profit. Guaranteeing 15 teams an annual spot in a TV megaevent may lessen each club’s incentive to spend heavily in soccer’s transfer market, the closest thing to a pure free market in the sports world.

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The people in charge of American football have done plenty of dirt themselves. But while they’ve gone to great lengths to make a product that is financially theirs, they’ve been smart enough to preserve at least some aspects of the game that culturally belong to the rest of us. They’ve realized their fans care about certain structures, even ones that aren’t individually conducive to the fattest TV ratings possible, and they haven’t messed with them. The NFL’s New York and L.A. teams, for instance, might not play each other in a given year because they’re busy playing their own divisional games and the entire schedule isn’t engineered for ratings. And in the college ranks, the SEC has yet to kick out Arkansas and Missouri to make sure Alabama and Georgia get an extra game against each other every year.

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Or, to be more on the nose: Even as college football’s TV and postseason arrangements have tilted inexorably in favor of the richest schools (and they’ve considered more options to enrich themselves), nobody has stepped in to suggest that Alabama, Georgia, Auburn, Florida, Texas A&M, LSU, Clemson, Florida State, Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, Notre Dame, Texas, Oklahoma, and USC form their own 15-team cabal to replace the current bowl system. The NFL has not given permanent playoff bids to the entire NFC East and declared the rest of the spots “open to any team that deserves it.”

By some measures, then, the advent of the Super League isn’t surprising. European soccer has been tracking toward a moment like this one for 30 years. What is a surprise is that the lords of the European game have now pulled ahead of their American counterparts. Here in the U.S., it’s hard not to wonder if Jerry Jones is stewing that some English tycoons thought of this thing first.

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