What the Super League told us about inequality in football

The proposed European Super League turned the football world upside down. The competition would consist of 20 teams – 15 founding clubs who would always be in the competition regardless of their performance, plus five others who would qualify based on their success in domestic leagues.

Fans were outraged and club owners were enticed. Smaller teams were neglected while the big clubs were asked to compete for a massive payday ($5.45 billion evenly distributed between the original 15 teams).

The UEFA said teams who agreed to the deal would no longer be able to play in domestic leagues, and players wouldn’t be able to play for their country. While the proposed new league was blatantly revenue-focused, it would have provided some of the biggest blockbuster football games fans could see.

Although the now-abandoned idea was panned and came up against ferocious push-back, was it all bad – or was it a concept that required more thawing out and better public relations measures?

Professor Steve Greenfield from the University of Westminster says he saw why the Super League may have been appealing to some, but pointed out that it also needed more thought.

“You can see why it came about, because the current situation and COVID has wreaked havoc with club incomes – you can see the attractiveness of it, but I think when you’re doing that you have to be really careful how you do it,” he says.

What the Super League did do was uncover some of the complexities seen in European football today, such as a lack of parity and the financial divide between the big clubs and the smaller, not-so-wealthy sides.

The idea that 15 founding teams would always qualify meant that only these sides were always going to reap the benefits of the revenue the Super League generated – an idea Professor Greenfield says would be problematic for the smaller clubs.

“That’s really part of the generation of the unfairness (and) access, because if this thing is going to produce all of this money, you are confining the access of that money to a small group of clubs,” he says.

The bigger clubs argued that they bring in the majority of revenue to their domestic leagues. Although this is true, the Premier League splits broadcast revenue evenly between the 20 clubs. After the threat of the European Super League, there’s a chance UEFA may consider renegotiating these deals in the future to favour the revenue-generating clubs.

As a product, the Super League would allow fans to see the best of the best competing against each other – where the Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi battles of old would be a regular occurrence. There would also likely be a new winner every year, contrasting with the monopoly that has transpired at the top of European leagues for the past decade. In Italy, Juventus have claimed the last nine Serie A titles; Bayern Munchen have won the last eight Bundesliga cups in Germany; in France, Paris Saint-Germain topped the last eight Ligue 1 contests; Barcelona and Real Madrid, with a little help from Atletico Madrid, have dominated Spain’s La Liga since forever; and England’s Premier League has the “Big Six”.

So how do the smaller clubs climb the ranks? To do that they need better players, and better players need more money. For a smaller club with a stadium capacity of 15,000 seats, ticket sales are going to be considerably lower than a side with a stadium whose capacity is 70,000, meaning the smaller sides by default are always going to generate less money.

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In contrast to other leagues across the globe such as the AFL, NBA or NFL, European football leagues don’t have a salary cap, or a draft system where lower ranked teams receive higher picks.

But salary caps have never been a part of European football, and often pose questions when brought up. Professor Greenfield can see both sides of the salary cap argument, but ultimately doesn’t think a cap is viable due to the disparity between the big and smaller clubs.

“Are you going to say to Manchester United that ‘all of that money that you generate through that club, you can’t spend on players?’,” he says.

“Are you going to take it down to the level of the lowest common denominator? It’s a question for sport, really, do you manipulate it? Or do you let the market, through sponsorship and viewing income, decide?”

This can cause a bit of an endless cycle for lesser-known clubs who face the constant challenge of needing money to make more money. Sometimes fans of these clubs “luck out” when they get a new owner, such as Manchester City, Chelsea, and Paris Saint-Germain catapulting to the top after being purchased by extremely wealthy backers. If getting a new owner with deep pockets doesn’t happen, it’s nearly impossible for these sides to get to the top and build their worth significantly.

Would the Super League have provided some of the best matches football fans could see, or would it have divided big and small clubs even further? Most likely both – but what it definitely did was highlight the problems in the financial landscape and parity of European football.