The European Super League: Ruining Football, American-Style 1

Billionaire owners. Disloyalty. Hunger for profit. The plan for the European Super League was, in fact, made in America.

When the announcement came late on Sunday that 12 of Europe’s wealthiest soccer clubs were forming a lucrative breakaway Super League, the first person I thought of was Terry Crouppen, a personal-injury lawyer from Missouri who was also a huge fan of the St. Louis Rams.

To understand what this Missourian has to do with what is probably the most consequential development in soccer in 50 years, you first need to understand how different the business of European soccer is from the business of American football.

In American sports leagues, the norm is cartel-like structures, where owners control franchises and share revenue along the way. Sports franchises have been moving to different cities to maximize earnings — and tax breaks — with increasing regularity since the 1980s. It is a common practice and a highly profitable arrangement. But it is utterly alien to how soccer operates. Or at least, it has been.

Soccer clubs have traditionally been seen as community assets, rooted in a town or neighborhood. If there was an owner, he tended to be a local businessman done good, but owners were considered merely custodians of the club by the fan base. Teams almost never leave their city.

And absolutely central to almost every soccer league on earth is the idea of promotion and relegation, in effect a pyramid of leagues in which good performance over a season will move you up a league, bad performance down. It produces a meritocracy of sorts — a flawed one, but one that has kept even the biggest teams on their toes. Promotion and relegation are in European soccer’s DNA but don’t exist in U.S. sports. It’s too big a risk to an owner’s investment. Why plow money into a team when one bad season could cause you to lose your seat at the top table?

And then the European Super League was announced. The news that Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Juventus, Inter and AC Milan had cooked up a deal to effectively abandon the Champions League and replace it with a virtually closed, N.F.L.-style structure was met with almost unanimous fury across Europe. So much fury, in fact, that within 48 hours the entire scheme seemed to be collapsing under the weight of almost universally bad publicity.

But whatever happens, the Super League plan has proved to most fans that a cabal of superrich soccer club owners were willing to throw away a century of tradition to line their own pockets. This wasn’t that surprising. Over the past two decades, European soccer has been taken over by billionaires — superrich owners from home and abroad. But Sunday’s announcement was a move made in America.

Which is where Terry Crouppen comes in.

Back in February 2016, while researching a book on how the superrich had taken over soccer, I’d met Mr. Crouppen on Super Bowl Sunday in a St. Louis dive bar. After two decades of rooting for the Rams, he was ready to give up. The team’s Missouri-born owner, Stan Kroenke, was moving the Rams to the more lucrative market of Los Angeles.

In addition to the Rams, Mr. Kroenke owned the Denver Nuggets and the Colorado Avalanche. He was also a majority shareholder of Arsenal, a storied English Premier League soccer club from North London. (He took full control of the club in 2018.) Mr. Kroenke was just one of a slew of American billionaires who had cut their teeth on American sports franchise ownership and were now turning their attention to the potentially far more lucrative global soccer market.

Mr. Crouppen had spent tens of thousands of dollars on season passes, personal seat licenses and team jerseys over the years. Now he, like thousands of other Rams fans, felt as if they had been duped. Despite Mr. Kroenke being born and bred in Missouri, he seemed to have more allegiance to his bank account than to St. Louis.

So Mr. Crouppen decided to pay thousands of dollars out of his own pocket to run an advertisement during the Super Bowl’s half time to tell Mr. Kroenke exactly what he thought of him. He hoped the owner would see it and reflect on “the bad things he had done” to the Rams, and to his city.

Judging by what had happened to the Rams, Mr. Crouppen was sure that Mr. Kroenke’s foray in English soccer would follow the same path: the pursuit of profit above all else, especially the fans. “How much money does this guy need?” he said.

European soccer fans now have the same sinking feeling Mr. Crouppen did. While they haven’t booked any ad time on TV, protests have been taking place outside stadiums. Everyone is furious. But the roots of the problem can be found at the turn of the century, when European soccer opened their doors to virtually anyone with large amounts of money. And the English Premier League was perhaps the easiest league for anyone to buy a club in.

In 2003 Roman Abramovich, a virtually unknown oligarch with close to President Vladimir Putin of Russia, bought Chelsea FC and sank hundreds of millions of dollars into the squad. They won the English Premier League and the UEFA Champions League. That sparked something of an arms race. To compete, clubs needed their own billionaires, leading to a flurry of sales and acquisitions from a motley assortment of characters: a former prime minister of Thailand who had recently been deposed in a coup, a Hong Kong hairdresser turned investor who would end up in jail for money laundering, a Saudi tycoon whom club officials weren’t even sure existed.

Today almost every English Premier League club is controlled or co-owned by as many as 19 billionaires from 10 countries. In Italy, AC Milan is controlled by Elliot Management, a U.S. hedge fund best known for buying distressed sovereign debt. In France, Paris Saint-Germain is controlled by an investment vehicle owned by Qatar. Each has his own reason to buy a club, whether that’s reputation laundering or, in the case of soccer’s American billionaire owners, the pursuit of profit.

Whichever country an owner comes from, all now agree that an American-style rationalization of the business — and the European Super League is the biggest manifestation of their approach so far — would yield the best returns.

The fans, of course, come last in all this. Much of European soccer’s recent financial success, especially in England, has been based on mammoth TV and commercial deals. Match-day revenue from loyal supporters is no longer most teams’ main source of income. That’s prompting many teams and leagues to look at exploiting European soccer’s huge global appeal, especially commercial and TV rights deals in new markets like China, India and the United States.

But there’s a reason the Super League scheme is coming right now: the coronavirus pandemic. Europe’s leading clubs are thought to have lost more than a billion dollars in revenue since Covid-19 arrived. Perhaps more important, the absence of supporters in the stadium means owners won’t have to face angry fans chanting in the stands.

Soccer’s regulatory bodies, especially UEFA, which organizes the Champions League, and the English Premier League, which is the world’s most lucrative domestic competition, are furious. After all, the Super League would be a hit to their economic viability. But they have little recourse. Billionaires have far deeper pockets. The Super League tried to head off any potential punishment by announcing that its members have taken pre-emptive legal action to try to prevent the UEFA or domestic football associations from punishing them with expulsion.

Everyone from players to supporters to TV pundits to government ministers are re-evaluating how much power the game has ceded to billionaires. What is clear is that the game is being remade in America’s image. If the Super League goes ahead, it will be a virtually closed-off European Super League for the world’s biggest teams. What’s next? Clubs moving like franchises — like the Rams — to the city that offers its owner the best deal. Perhaps Manchester City will play some of their matches in Abu Dhabi? Or maybe Arsenal could spend the winter in Los Angeles? Or Juventus in Beijing?

But whether the Super League goes ahead is a big if. As of Tuesday evening, reports suggested that Chelsea and Manchester City were pulling out of the scheme under intense pressure from governments, supporters and even some of the club’s own players and coaches. Atletico Madrid and Barcelona might follow. The American-owned teams appeared to be clinging on to the bitter end. And if it does collapse? Well, on Monday UEFA voted through Champions League reforms that legislates for more games and hands even more power and money to the top leagues. They will also introduce two “legacy” spots to teams who didn’t qualify but had a good record in the competition. Insurance for the top teams against momentary failure. Even when the superrich club owners lose, they win.

Back in 2016 it felt crazy contemplating such scenarios, even if Mr. Crouppen thought that what had happened to the St Louis Rams would be replicated in soccer. His advertisement ran during the Super Bowl 50 half time break with the hashtag #slamStan. He ended his short monologue with a piece of advice for Mr. Kroenke, but it is just as relevant to the other 11 owners who have signed up for the European Super League: “Just because it’s legal and you’re rich enough to do it — that doesn’t make it right.” The world’s 12 richest teams were about to blow up soccer because they were rich enough to do it. They will be back.

James Montague (@JamesPiotr) is the author of “The Billionaires Club: The Unstoppable Rise of Football’s Super-rich Owners.”

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