The issue of the European Super League appears to have raised its head again. The three surviving members from the failed April 2021 project – Barcelona, Juventus and Real Madrid – appear to be continuing with the project in the hope that others will follow. A revised format was issued this week, which included major revisions. The more obvious changes include the removal of the “closed system” so that promotion and relegation are now possible, and qualification to the Super League through national leagues.
While the clubs behind this new idea may think it could be enough to win the argument, the obstacle of UEFA remains. And in here lies the inherent contradiction of the who debate. UEFA is an monopsony when it comes to European football. It is the only buyer of talent. Of course, it does not do this directly but rather indirectly through the national associations it regulates. It is within these national associations that the clubs exist and, as these are governed by the national associations, they are all indirectly (in most instances) answerable to UEFA (and ultimately FIFA). It is like the chain of command in any organisation. UEFA object to the European Super League because it will be outside the control of the organisation and end the monopsony power of UEFA. It is difficult to have any sympathy for an organisation that objects to the arrival of a competitor because it will end its market dominance.
There is a catch of course. Competition law – or antitrust law as it is known in the United States – often treats sporting organisations differently. It is very much debatable whether UEFA’s position is actually anti-competitive. Would European football be better off if there was more than one federation governing the sport, so that clubs or players could decide where to play or who they were answerable to? Boxing is an example of this. Competing international governing bodies exist side by side e.g. WBA, WBC, WBO and IBF. Other combat sports such as MMA and pro-wrestling illustrate this point. Are the sporting interests of these sports better achieved by this?
The monopsony power of UEFA can be traced to its foundation in 1954. Football was very different almost 70 years ago. One can reasonably argue that the only competition that existed then was sporting competition. The national leagues existed because they were interested in finding the best national teams and made economic sense as they were the most efficient way for teams to compete under a league format.
Today things are very different because sporting competition is now rivalled by economic competition. Football is big business. Economic competition has grown so much that today some European clubs are owned by nation-states.
UEFA’s role as both organiser of competitions and regulator of the European league system may now appear to be anti-competitive. But is “competition” via an alternative organiser like the European Super League the answer? I think not. This is because I believe UEFA’s position as sole buyer of talent is not as anti-competitive as it may appear to be. This can be contrasted with the competition design they regularly tinker within European club and national competitions. Some of this clearly gives an advantage to some stakeholders over others and could be deemed anti-competitive, but UEFA in and of itself is not.
Better regulation is the route forward. The governing body needs to ensure that the wealth generated from European clubs is spread as equitably as possible through UEFA members, and that sporting competition is aligned with the interest of all member clubs, not just those that previously wished to create a European Super League.
What’s more, the fans – the most important people in this debate – have no desire to end the UEFA dominance of European football. Nor do most EU member states. Sky Sports reports that “The EU countries want to protect the "European Sports Model" which allows football to have exemptions from competition laws, defends grassroots level sport and sporting integrity; the European Court of Justice (ECJ) is also due to hold a public hearing in 2022”.
It might be the case that, yet again, football is just a little bit special.