Sunday, May 15, 2005

The Coming Of A European Super League?

Malcolm Glazer's takeover of Manchester United has been done to death in the media over recent days. However, one line of enquiry into motivations and consequences seems to have been missed by most media outlets. The Times yesterday said that Glazer would have hoped to get individual TV rights for the Manchester United home games and sell them himself; thus retaining for the business far more money than would be gained under the collective agreement currently in operation (this probably boosted in part by the fact that the EU may well rule against the agreement as it currently stands).

Premier League rules, however, make this very difficult, because any breaking ranks has to win the support of 14 out of the 20 clubs. As about 4 or 5 of the clubs are the really big draws which persuade Murdoch and BSkyB to shell out such ridiculously huge sums of money for the rights to the Premiership, it is inconceivable that the middle-ranking clubs in the league would support such a move. Thus a breakaway from the top clubs would be pretty infeasible. The Times concluded that this meant the merchandising market was not being sufficiently milked, and that the Glazer family could see new expansion opportunities.

I wonder if another alternative, which ordinary football fans should find far more sinister, is actually open to the Glazers. Every so often there is talk about the formation of a European Super League. The last time it was mooted, UEFA responded quickly and opened up the Champions' League to a ridiculous number of clubs - a number which made the claim of it being a "Champions" competition completely laughable. This was done so that the Manchester Uniteds and Real Madrids of the world would have to have an appallingly bad domestic season so as not to be able to compete in the money-spinner the year after.

This, of course, is one of the reasons for the competitive unbalance that strikes out right across European leagues - the distribution of the prize money allows the rich to get richer and richer, whilst the poorer clubs scrap for existence. Such is the nature of sport that a good manager and good tactics can abate this somewhat (see Everton this year, or for an even more striking example, take the Oakland Athletics of the last five years in Major League Baseball). In the long run, however, to stay competitive requires cash - and this prices most teams out of the success market.

The Champions League cannot expand its ranks further than it has in the past. TV money under the current agreement is probably the most bloated it can be. Indeed, in most other sports, markets have fallen backwards dramatically, and ITV Digital showed the limits even of the voracious appetite for football the British have. How, then, can the really big clubs - the really big businesses - of the football world maximise their income?

Simple. Break away from the individual leagues, maybe even break away from the auspices of UEFA, and form a European Super League. Laban Tall talked about the loyalty of the football market the other day. The loyalty of the football market means that most Manchester United fans will ignore the FC United breakway, even when pushed into a European Super League, and follow their team to Munich, Milan and Madrid week in week out. Indeed, from a neutral perspective, the prospect of the best teams in Europe playing each other so regularly should be mouth-watering.

But the reality is somewhat harsher. To see why, we need to return to the TV rights which are the main motivation for this. At the moment, you pay for a Sky subscription and get all the Premiership matches they show. Individual negotiating agreements mean that such a monopoly is unlikely to arise - instead, you'd have to pay money directly to the football clubs, possibly on a pay-per-view basis, with all the money that would entail. Even if a Super League was to be created, it's possible this would be a long term solution rather than a short term one (expediency may dictate having as many games on offer to the viewer as possible). That said, the likelihood is that at some point individual clubs will be broadcasting their own games exclusively. As one comment said the last time a European Super League was mooted, Murdoch was so keen to buy up screening rights for the Football League because he was well aware that in a few years time Torquay vs Northampton was the best he had to offer.

Worse still, a European Super League would be the death of competition. I hypothesised earlier that clubs may need to break away from UEFA to form one. If they did, then the league would be totally and utterly ring-fenced. In so doing, the top clubs would create a virtual monopoly on the world's top talent - making the rich richer still. There wouldn't be any promotion or relegation - any club deemed insufficiently commercially attractive when the breakaway occurred would be doomed to a life of obscurity.

This may all seem overly pessimistic - and indeed, being by and large a football neutral, I find the idea of the top European clubs all in one league potentially tremendously exciting. But deep down, I know the reasons why it would be done, and the reasons why it would be a bad idea. The sad thing is, I doubt there is much that could be done about it, given the casual nature of much football fandom at the top end of things. We have been spoilt by the growth of money and the abundantly talented teams that it has been able to provide. We don't really want to lessen the quality of top football - we are willing consumers. And as such, we will most likely swallow whatever the businessmen on high dictate to us. Glazer's takeover of Manchester United symbolises the increasing commercialisation of sports - perhaps even the growth of an Americanised sporting culture in Europe. The Chelseas and Milans of the world are far cries from the community-based teams they were when they started - they are now on a level applicable to the franchises of the NFL or the NBA. As soon as they think the commercial benefits outweigh the risks and the promises that they are given, a European Super League will become a reality. And that will be the real problem facing football.