by Beau Dure
To say the ill-conceived and short-lived European Super League was about “money” is to simplify the point. The point is a question that’s relevant from the highest level of the game to the grassroots, from European giants to the thousands of youth clubs in the United States.
Whose game is it?
Let’s be clear: Nothing makes “money” if no one’s interested. You could say the endless Eagles or Beach Boys tours featuring whichever members are getting along at the moment are about “money.” But if people weren’t willing to pay $129 for upper-level Eagles tickets and nearly $1,000 to be close enough to share the floor with Don Henley’s ego, they couldn’t charge that much for them.
When the English clubs immediately folded in the face of supporters’ pressure, they weren’t doing so out of some noble purpose for the good of the game. After all, Real Madrid’s Florentino Pérez seemed to have convinced everyone that this league was for the good of the game. It would help soccer remain a global obsession, even among the enigmatic Generation Z, and they’d kick some solidarity payments into the mix.
They blinked and backtracked for one simple reason. They realized the “money” wasn’t there.
“They had even lost the luxury watchmakers, and without the luxury watchmakers, there was nothing left to lose but themselves,” wrote Rory Smith in The New York Times.
So here’s the follow-up question: Why was there no money in this European Super League? Isn’t it basically the Champions League with a bunch of spots reserved for the clubs who got there first?
Most likely, it was the last stand for supporters who have watched the top 12-15 clubs in Europe race away from everyone else. In domestic leagues, this is a lost cause. Barcelona and Real Madrid toss the La Liga crown back and forth, only occasionally intercepted by Atlético Madrid. The Bundesliga trophy has taken root in Munich. Leicester City is considered the overachieving underdog even though it ranks 19th on Forbes’ list of the most valuable clubs in the world and is owned by multibillionaire Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha, who has so far lived up to his promise to keep the club strong after the tragic death of his father, Vichai, in a 2018 helicopter crash.
Clubs have a choice of whether to jump on the train or be run over by it. The Arsenal board apologized for its decision to join the Super League with a “fear of missing out” plea.
In Europe, the days of a champion like Nottingham Forest are long gone, and even once-mighty Ajax finds its forays into the Champions League too often stopped in the group stage. But supporters have drawn a line here against a Super League that would make it more difficult for the dozens of accomplished European clubs, let alone the hundreds of ambitious clubs, to make it into Europe’s marquee league at all.
So this is a last stand of sorts against the notion of reserving sports for the elite few. The European Super League wasn’t going to make money because supporters made it known they weren’t intending to give any more to the clubs that are already swimming in cash. (Granted, some are in debt, but that’s because their owners have so much money that they don’t mind tossing some of it down the drain.) They’ll give their cash to Chelsea after they’ve knocked out Porto, not before.
Next question: When will we see this line against the 0.1% drawn in American sports?
Collegiate “non-revenue” sports are playgrounds for the moneyed class. Parents pay top dollar or even falsify information about their kids’ credentials in rowing, sailing or, yes, soccer to get their kids into elite schools. Colleges who can’t find space for bright students from underserved communities hand equestrian scholarships to families who don’t need them.
That elitism trickles down to youth sports, especially soccer. Playing in elite leagues requires vast expenditures of money, either from the players’ parents or other benefactors.
Changing the influence of money will require massive changes in mindsets. Youth sports will need to become more participatory, and the “elite” leagues will need to be at least partially dismantled. The only way to shift money around in Europe, beyond solidarity payments that may help pay lower-level clubs’ bills but don’t help them reach the top, is to devote more of our attention and money to domestic leagues and lower divisions.
The Super League is dead. For now. But the intrinsic forces that made it an appealing idea are never going away. We simply need to find pragmatic ways to deal with them.