Over the past 48 hours or so word got out about a secret meeting among top Premier League clubs to bring radical changes to club football. The issue on the table: a European Super League.
The meeting featured representatives from five of the biggest clubs in the English top flight; Manchester United’s Ed Woodward, Liverpool’s Ian Ayre, Manchester City’s Ferran Soriano, Arsenal’s Ivan Gazidis, and Chelsea’s Bruce Buck. They met in secret yesterday at the Dorchester Hotel in London to ostensibly discuss changes to the Champions League, but talks reportedly veered toward a breakaway Super League featuring Europe’s elite.
One of the changes floated recently is guaranteed Champions League qualification for some of Europe’s biggest clubs and narrower channels for other teams to enter. Manchester United and Liverpool have missed out on Champions League football in recent years and Chelsea is almost certain to sit it out next season, yet under this proposal they would all qualify regardless of their domestic league performance. It’s worth noting that the five clubs who participated in this meeting are, at press time, ranked 3rd, 4th, 5th, 8th, and 11th in the Premier League.
The meeting was called at the behest of Stephen Ross, an American billionaire who made his fortune in real estate. He’s also the founder of the International Champions Cup, a summer friendly tournament that brings European giants together with MLS and Liga MX clubs that serves as both a lucrative revenue stream and a way to prepare for the league season.
It’s no secret that American investors have been casting covetous glances at English and European football in recent years, with the Premier League and Champions League awash in TV money. It’s also no secret that the five Premier League clubs who were in that meeting have strong ties to the US, with three owned by American investors and one a principal owner of an MLS franchise.
Indeed, it’s broadcast revenue that’s driving these discussions. The current agreement on TV rights for the Champions League and Europa League will expire in 2018 and a new one will need to be hashed out soon. Big European clubs are using these negotiations as leverage to push for bigger slices of the pie, much like English clubs did in the old First Division before ultimately breaking away to form the Premier League in 1992.
For their part, UEFA said that while they’re open to discussions on changes to the elite club competitions they are categorically opposed to either a Super League or automatic qualification to the Champions League.
In the wake of media reports about the meeting, Arsenal have denied that a breakaway Super League was on the table.
While the current debate is a recent development— no doubt complicated by the approaching start of the Premier League’s new TV deal, the revenue from which will dwarf what the Champions League can offer— the idea of European megaclubs seceding from their domestic leagues is nothing new. A Super League was floated as far back as 1998, with clubs ultimately pacified after UEFA agreed to expand the Champions League and abolish the Cup Winners’ Cup. In 2009, Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez suggested that a Super League is an inevitability. “We have to agree a new European Super League which guarantees that the best always play the best – something that does not happen in the Champions League.”
It’s unlikely that radical changes to the Champions League or the formation of a Super League will take place in the immediate future. But with more and more foreign investment flooding into elite European football, clubs will only wield more political and financial leverage of their domestic leagues and UEFA. Something will have to give. (Assuming the bubble doesn’t burst, of course.)