European Super League: Football’s New Billionaire Boys’ Club

At around 11:20pm (BST) on Sunday 18th April 2021, Twelve clubs from England, Spain and Italy jointly announced the formation of a ‘European Super League’ (ESL).



After news leaked earlier in the day and speculation grew, it seemed as if this would be another of football’s ‘Project Big Picture’ stories. But then the news broke with an official statement reading:


“Twelve of Europe’s leading football clubs have today come together to announce they have agreed to establish a new mid-week competition, the Super League, governed by its Founding Clubs.


“AC Milan, Arsenal FC, Atlético de Madrid, Chelsea FC, FC Barcelona, FC Internazionale Milano, Juventus FC, Liverpool FC, Manchester City, Manchester United, Real Madrid CF and Tottenham Hotspur have all joined as Founding Clubs.


“It is anticipated that a further three clubs will join ahead of the inaugural season, which is intended to commence as soon as practicable.”


The announcement came the day before UEFA, European football’s governing body, were about to announce its plans for changes to the Champions League format from 2024 which has courted its own controversy in recent weeks. Those plans, approved earlier today, are now in jeopardy as the clubs that have played to make it one of the most prestigious in world football turn their back on the competition.


Ahead of the official ESL announcement, UEFA issued a joint statement with the Premier League, The FA, the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) and LaLiga, and the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) and Lega Serie A, stating: “If this were to happen, we wish to reiterate that we – UEFA, the English FA, RFEF, FIGC, the Premier League, LaLiga, Lega Serie A, but also FIFA and all our member associations – will remain united in our efforts to stop this cynical project, a project that is founded on the self-interest of a few clubs at a time when society needs solidarity more than ever.”


In addition they re-iterated their position on measures to stop such a break-away from happening, stating: “We will consider all measures available to us, at all levels, both judicial and sporting in order to prevent this happening. Football is based on open competitions and sporting merit; it cannot be any other way.”


So now the plans for the ESL have been formally released what does it mean for the clubs involved and for the future of both the UEFA competitions and domestic football?


Football over the last 20 years has grown exponentially. The value of the Premier League’s TV Revenues since its inception in 1992 are probably the best indicator of this growth in the UK. During this time, revenues from broadcasting have risen from the initial £304m over 5 years to its last round of rights sales on 2018-21 which reached £4.5bn for the UK market alone. However, that figure was down on the previous cycle which achieve £5.1bn and with the new rights cycle up for tender in 2022, it’s expected there may be further reductions in the value going forward.


But whilst there may be trouble brewing in the domestic broadcasting market, the Premier League’s appeal around the world remains undiminished with international rights valued at around £5bn. That appeal is crucial to the formation, and the ultimate success, of the European Super League.


Football’s wealth at the top has accelerated because of this international appeal. LaLiga giants, Real Madrid who have won the Champions League a staggering 13 times, and FC Barcelona have amassed huge followings internationally and across social media recently. FC Barcelona have been leading the way in digital and social communications with over 1.6bn engagements across its social media platforms in 2020.


The clubs that stand to gain the most from the ESL are those from Italy, with Juventus, AC and Inter Milan joining the fray. The Serie A clubs have been left behind financially in recent years with the country’s league deriving significantly less revenue from broadcasting than LaLiga and the Premier League, and barring Juventus, fall well short of the other clubs among the breakaway pack in terms of revenue generation.


But should we be surprised by the news? Probably not. The Project Big Picture reforms mooted by Manchester United and Liverpool in the Premier League late last year provided a glimpse of the intentions of these clubs’ owners. But ultimately the European Super League is about protecting their investments in these clubs against the volatility that comes with playing in a competition that requires consistency in a domestic league.  


Missing out on Champions League football in recent seasons has cost Arsenal hugely despite a run to the Europa League final in 2019 which netted the North London club £34m, significantly lower than the £98m Liverpool earned for its participation in the Champions League in the same season. Arsenal were one of the Champions League’s ever-presents under former manager Arsene Wenger until his retirement in 2017.


Key to the breakaway is essentially the closed-shop format which means the founder members need not worry about dropping out of the competition which would have a negative impact on future planned revenues. Liverpool and Manchester United are both owned by American investors that also own sports franchises in the US where there is no relegation and promotion. Fenway Sports Group, which owns Liverpool, also own Major League Baseball (MLB) franchise Boston Red Sox whilst Manchester United’s Glazer family own NFL franchise and this year’s Super Bowl winners, Tampa Bay Buccaneers.


The NFL is one of the most valuable sports properties in the world with its annual showpiece game, the Super Bowl, attracting global audiences greater than 100m and can demand in excess of $5m for a 30 second commercial during the game. According to Statista some of the largest Super Bowl advertisers in 2020 included Amazon and Volkswagen, while Anheuser-Busch sat top of the list, spending $42m on commercials during the game with total advertising revenue reaching a record $449m in 2020, more than twice the figure of 2011.


The volatility in the European pyramid system has long been a bugbear of investors from outside Europe, and the US in particular, so it should come as no surprise that with their input, they intend to create a high value competition that strips out this factor. Their investment in these clubs is purely transactional and focused on deriving as much value from them as possible.


Quite rightly the plans have been met with consternation among fans and  across the football industry alike who consider it a money grab and one based purely on financial gain. However, the formation of the Premier League came about merely for the generation of TV revenues with new satellite broadcaster Sky taking the lead in a bid to drive up its subscriber base.


The UEFA Champions League has been at the forefront of the acceleration and polarization of wealth at the top of the game since it changed its format in 1992 from the original European Cup. During this time the competition has expanded its scope to include more teams beyond the champions of each qualifying European nation. This has created an unbalance in domestic leagues and fed into the wealth gap between those who regularly qualify for the competition.


The growing disparities have been a concern for a long time in European football and were partly addressed by the introduction of Financial Fair Play rules which sought to limit the excess spending by clubs in pursuit of glory. However, it could be argued it only served to strengthen the position of those already at the top of the game and created a huge financial barrier to entry for those lower down the pyramid.    


This position has been hugely criticised and efforts to re-establish some form of equality across European football have so far failed to address the fundamental problems. It’s hardly surprising those clubs involved in the breakaway are aiming to protect themselves from a system that by its very nature is volatile both in performance and financially. Of the UK clubs, only Manchester City and United are currently in a position to qualify for next season’s Champions League whilst Liverpool, Tottenham and Arsenal battle outside of the final Europa League qualification spot currently in Chelsea’s hands.


The clubs that will form the ESL are well aware of their value to their domestic leagues and UEFA’s overall product and have been calling for a bigger slice of TV revenues for many years. By operating a closed league format they can ensure that all the money generated stays among them bar solidarity payments for which they pledged would “be in excess of €10 billion” in their official statement.


“The new annual tournament will provide significantly greater economic growth and support for European football via a long-term commitment to uncapped solidarity payments which will grow in line with league revenues. These solidarity payments will be substantially higher than those generated by the current European competition and are expected to be in excess of €10 billion during the course of the initial commitment period of the Clubs.”    


One of the chief architects of the ESL is Juventus Chairman Andrea Agnelli, who, until today (19th April) was also chairman of the European Club Association (ECA) which represents 246 of Europe’s leading clubs. Agnelli has been vocal in his distaste of the current Champions League set up and now has the chance to press forward with his vision for his club on the European stage.


However, the ESL leaves these clubs in a precarious position within their domestic leagues. There has been a huge backlash against the plans from fans  across the UK and Europe whilst the joint statement from UEFA and the leagues involved shows the strength of opposition to it. But what will happen next is solely dependent on how the leagues and associations react. Will they stand their ground in opposition which could see these clubs expelled from their domestic leagues or will they bend to their demands and offer the carrot and the stick? Can the leagues legally expel the clubs from competing in domestic competition?


There are many questions to be asked in the coming days but one thing is for sure is that football’s fragile financial foundations exposed by the covid crisis will need to be quickly addressed Europe wide. Tottenham for instance, one for the founders of this new league, have a billion pound stadium to pay for. Can they meet their financial obligations by playing Burnley on a Saturday afternoon without the bonus of European competition mid-week?


Can FC Barcelona and Real Madrid cover the huge financial commitments of renovating their iconic stadium homes which are in excess of billions of Euros? The ESL is for the super-elite with huge financial liabilities they are keen to protect. It goes against our traditional sporting ethos of fair and open competition, but then has football truly been open and fair in recent years?


fcbusiness Editor’s Comment

As editor of fcbusiness I’ve witnessed great change in recent years. Clubs have transformed into sporting and business empires that stretch far beyond their local footprint. Many are complex, multi-functional, multi-national businesses which employ the very best people across performance and business. Many do not see themselves as sporting organisations anymore – they are entertainment operations where audience figures in Asia or the accumulative spend of a fan in the US counts.



These clubs have a complex understanding of how people interact with them, how much they spend and their purchasing habits and brand desires that make them hugely valuable to potential sponsors. Maybe we’ve all sleep-walked to this moment. Maybe we’ve all been complicit in its creation but don’t think for one moment I think it’s right and I really hope that football finds a way to nullify the potential harm this new Billionaire Boys’ Club will have on football as a whole.

Aaron Gourley

Image: European Super League