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Football is king in Europe; it is a sport that moves millions of die-hard fans as well as billions of euros every year, 28.9 in 2019 to be precise. Despite the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic took a major hit on the finances of most football clubs, the revenue of the big five leagues (England, Germany, Spain, Italy and France) is expected to reach a new record of 18.2 billion euros in 2021.

Even tough business seems prosperous, there are a number of problems to be addressed, and the Super League, the international competition announced earlier this year that quickly fell apart, suggests that the elite of football wants to solve only their own problems. It is, however, important not to forget that this competition points to a huge problem in modern football – the growing asymmetries within the sport.  

How did we get here?

Disregarding the health-driven financial crisis lived today, Football’s health has been struggling for a while now, as there has been an overall overspending by teams, mainly from larger clubs, either on the acquisition fees or payroll. Moreover, most domestic leagues have become uncompetitive and monotonous and, there has been a lack of commercial interest in most of the “smaller” confronts.

The importance of the competitions and broadcasting’s income for the clubs and their rapid growth have led to major “financial confronts” outside the pitch, with every club looking for the best talent out there. This has been transformed into skyrocketing wages and transfer fees between clubs, with the average Premier League transfer fee having more than tripled since 2007, to an average of more than £16 million. 

Figure 2 – Average Premier League Transfer Fee
Source: Chronicle Live

This has been made possible by overleveraging clubs, through debt or the help of wealthy owners, who can invest large sums of money in hope titles. In fact, only one of the 12 initial clubs in the Super League is free of debt, with several of them having a large net debt as of 2021, which, by not being accompanied by positive profits, keeps increasing from season to season. This has led to enormous asymmetries between those who can sustain said debts, or have wealthy owners who can bail them, and those who rely solely on their revenues from more conventional sources.

Figure 3 – Net Debt of Super League Founding Member
Source: Bloomberg

On the other hand, leagues have been struggling with commercial interest on some of their games, especially those between smaller teams. TV broadcasting rights and sponsorships, which play an important role on clubs’ revenues, also help perpetuate the differences between teams, with some in leagues where there is no “unified type” of TV rights selloff seeing a larger disparity, whereas in the Premier League or Bundesliga there is a more centralized and organized revenue sharing.

This reality leads to the final problem Football is facing: most domestic leagues are becoming uncompetitive. Looking at Top-5 leagues, only the Premier League has constantly 6 teams fighting for the title, whereas the others either have 2 main competitors (La Liga and Bundesliga), or even a single competitor that stands immensely (Serie A and Ligue 1). This era has become more and more polarized between title candidates, and the others, with the second group playing on an unleveled playing ground, and only in some rare occasions being able to surprise the recurrent candidates. This diminishes the spectacle of football, and only helps perpetuate the problems in Football, the inequalities and the surviving difficulties small teams suffer recurrently.

Figure 4  – Market Size of Professional Football Leagues in Europe from 2017 to 2019, by league type (in billion euros)
Source: Statista

How did COVID-19 put the Super League on the table again?

The COVID-19 pandemic affected our lives in every possible dimension, with football not being an exception. According to KPMG, the pandemic had a $5 billion impact on the sport, with the biggest clubs alone having $1 billion losses in revenues.

Figure 5 – Aggregate revenue in European top divisions (in EUR million)
Source: KPMG and UEFA

With the major European clubs taking major hits to their finances because of COVID-19, the plan of a European Super League (ESL) came abruptly to the foreground this April, in an attempt to ramp up revenues.

What is the plan, then?

According to the official ESL plan put out in mid-April, 12 major European clubs (+3 that would be announced) would join as Founding Clubs and the competition would consist of a closed tournament between those teams and 5 other teams in rotating slots that would be chosen each season.

This plan has major implications for the economics of European football:

Firstly, each founding member would have received around $400 million for the founding of the ESL. Secondly, revenues coming from broadcasting and advertising would be much more concentrated on the ESL founding member-clubs, because such a league would siphon off much of the attention from the Champions League and other competitions in Europe. Furthermore, as an essentially walled-off competition, the ESL would hurt revenues of smaller clubs which would be left out of the ESL’s elite roster, thus losing access to the millions of the European stage.

Finally, it could have large impacts on the wages paid to players and on the clubs’ finances, as many large clubs spend considerable percentages of their revenues on players’ wages to attract the best players in the world, and ultimately win titles.

Figure 6 – Wage burden of clubs looking to join the new Super League
Source: FT

The new ESL founding clubs would commit to spending limits of 55% on wages. This would reduce competitive behaviour between these large clubs, leading to lower wages for players and more profits for clubs.

The potential negative effects on smaller clubs and the fact that the 15 founding clubs would have their place in the ESL guaranteed, no matter what, led to outrage from both football fans and football confederations, who claimed that this would further increase the inequality between clubs and would hurt the spirit of the sport. The UEFA went further threatening sanctions against the clubs who would undertake the project, namely barring clubs from all its competitions and preventing their players from representing their national teams.

Eventually, as pressures from the backlash increased against the large clubs, even from politicians, English clubs began to pull out from the ESL project and the ESL put out a statement saying that the project was “suspended”.

What does the future hold for European Football?

Though the Super League was killed off earlier this year, it does not mean that European Football will stay the same, as a new format of the Champions League is to come into effect in 2024. Moreover, an all-new tournament is coming in 2021, the UEFA Europa Conference League, a third-tier competition. The new Champions League will adopt a swiss-style model instead of the traditional group stage, and there will be a single league in which teams play 10 games each against “teams of their level” to qualify for the knock-out stage. This new format addresses some complaints of the biggest clubs regarding the quality of the matches, as the best teams will face each other more frequently. Furthermore, the addition of 4 more teams to the competition serves the same purpose as the Conference League, that is allowing for more teams to have a chance in the European stage, hopefully making the sport more competitive, which is what fans look for. The problems that football faces today are not exclusive to the sport. We have witnessed sports introducing significant changes in order to remain relevant. Formula 1 is a great example, as the sport has changed itself over the years, managing to attract a new generation of fans in return. F1, perhaps the most expensive sport in the world in which money means titles, recently announced budget caps, as well as sliding scale for car development, which intends to create a level playing field for teams and ultimately make the sport more interesting for fans.

Figure 7 – F1 rebranded itself in 2017 to attract new fans
Source: F1

Football faces the same challenges as F1 in terms of competitiveness and the difficulty to resonate with a new generation of fans that, due to social media, is more interested in the accomplishments of players such as Ronaldo or Messi than in their teams’. Consequently, football must constantly reinvent itself too, without losing the essence that made it what it is today.

Football is at a crosswalk; the sport must remain relevant in the modern era of entertainment and social media, while still being a profitable business. The innovations brought by UEFA show that the sport is evolving. However, that alone will not make it. Certainly, the smaller teams will get a bigger pie of the money and the elite better matches, though that will be verified only in the short run.

Sources: Bloomberg, Chronicle Live, FiveThirtyEight, Financial Times, KPMG, The New York Times, Statista, UEFA

Tiago Rebelo

João Baptista

Jorge Lousada

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