The biggest sports story of the past week broke on Sunday when twelve of the biggest European soccer teams announced that they were forming a European “Super League” that crossed international boundaries and would replace, at least for them, the UEFA Champions League. They announced that they had financial backing from American banking giant JP Morgan Chase and that this new tournament would bring untold riches into the game.
Within 48 hours, backlash from all corners killed the idea. But the Super League is a symptom of a larger trend in sport that has been underway for years but has been rapidly accelerated by financial setbacks of the global pandemic. And at least one of the billionaires involved in the Super League fiasco is going to be a major player in the upcoming Major League Baseball Collective Bargaining Talks.
For those who don’t follow European soccer and may be confused by what happened in l’affaire Superligue, let me try to explain. (And for those asking, I’m calling it “soccer” and not “football” so as not to confuse people even further. If the “football snobs” have a problem with that, they can just stuff it.) European soccer fans like to tout the superiority of their league system by noting that their championships are decided on the field, and not through playoffs, where a less-deserving team can just get hot at the right moment and win a title over a more-deserving one. But that isn’t quite true. Because at the end of those seasons, the teams that win the title and some of the top runners-up are invited to play in the UEFA Champions League the next season. The Champions League is, for all intents and purposes, a European playoff system. The most-similar American system would be the NCAA Basketball Tournament, only if the tournament wasn’t held in March but over the course of the following season. (There’s also an NIT-style tournament called the Europa League.) The Champions League final is a bigger world sporting event than the Super Bowl, even if the NFL won’t admit it.
The other thing that European soccer fans talk about is their system of promotion and relegation. I covered that topic here three years ago, so I won’t go into a lot of depth on it here. But let me assure you that every soccer fan in Europe considers the system of promotion and relegation to be sacred. Teams that play in the top leagues should earn it. Teams that fail to put a quality team on the field should be punished.
So what was it about the Super League that got people so angry? Sunday night, 12 European teams announced that they were forming this international Super League that would play on weeknights during the regular season. These twelve teams would not play in the old Champions League since the Super League games would generally be played at about the same time. Plus, it would be too many games for their players to handle.
These 12 teams hoped that three other teams would join them (more on that later) and serve as the 15 permanent teams in the Super League. There would be five other teams that would be invited to join temporarily based on their finish in their respective domestic league the year before.
The twelve teams that were part of the league were Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur from England, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid from Spain and Juventus, AC Milan and Inter Milan from Italy. The other three teams asked to join, but that had not agreed to join when the news broke on Sunday, were Paris Saint-Germain from France and Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund from Germany.
So let’s try to put this in baseball terms. It’s as if the Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs and Dodgers (the Le Creuset League!) announced that they would no longer participate in the MLB playoffs or the World Series. Let’s throw the Giants and the Mets in with those big four, as they’re ranked fifth and sixth in the Forbes ranking of MLB franchise values. Instead, those six teams would play in their own, separate playoff series. Those six teams would play in these playoffs no matter what their record was over the course of the regular season, because those are the teams with the most fans and the teams that will bring the biggest TV audiences. These six would invite one additional American and one additional National League team for an eight-team tournament that would compete with the World Series. This new tournament would have an international TV contract and a payoff of a hundred million dollars or more for the team that wins it, with lesser, but still huge, payouts for the other teams. Maybe it would start in late August and last three months, with dozens of games between the eight teams.
You can imagine that wouldn’t go over well in America. Fans would be outraged that six teams would make the playoffs without having to earn it. If you think American fans would be outraged, you can just imagine how outraged the fans would be in a sporting culture that teaches that a system of promotion and relegation are the key to fair play. On top of that, if those six teams knew they were making the playoffs at the end of the year, how seriously would they take regular season games? They’d just be a chance to get their players hurt for the more important playoff tournament.
You can read the articles about how the entire thing fell apart and it is an interesting story. The 12 owners were basically trying to make this thing a fait accompli before anyone could stop them, and in their haste they failed to get enough buy-in from the many stakeholders. In many cases, the team owners hadn’t even bothered to tell their club’s top executive about the announcement. Paris, Munich and Dortmund stayed out for their own reasons as well. It was hoped that the announcement would force those three teams to get on board, but instead the backlash reaffirmed their decision to stay away.
But one of the most powerful arguments the Europeans had against this Super League was that it was a part of the “Americanization” of the sport. Europeans are familiar with the NFL and NBA these days and the NHL is huge in the hockey-playing countries. They also know that the same teams compete in those leagues every year with no promotion or relegation. They accept that because they know it’s not their league. But they weren’t about to let their traditions be subsumed to the demands of the global marketplace.
And the Europeans had some reason to make that “Americanization” charge. This Super League was being pushed mainly by four teams: Real Madrid, Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool. While Real Madrid has local Spanish ownership, Manchester United is owned by American Joel Glazer, who also owns the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Arsenal is owned by American Stan Kroenke, who also owns the Los Angeles Rams, the Denver Nuggets and the Colorado Avalanche. And finally, Liverpool is owned by American John Henry, who owns the Boston Red Sox.
And it’s here where MLB gets involved. Those clubs, and others, had been discussing a breakaway European Super League for years. Those teams feel that they’re the best teams, the most popular teams, that they generate the most revenue for the sport and they’re the ones that are keeping the other teams afloat. They also believe they don’t get compensated in the leagues and tournaments in which they compete commensurate with the amount of revenue they generate. They also feel like they have huge payroll commitments and that means they lose a lot of money on those occasions when they have a “down” year. So their solution was to keep the money flowing in even if they did have a bad year, like what happens in the NFL and to a lesser extent, MLB.
But they never felt the need to pull the trigger on a breakaway league until now, and there is one big reason they did what they did: the losses they suffered because of the global pandemic. These teams have big wage bills and they don’t have the revenue coming in that they had just a year ago. Some of them, especially the Italian teams, are on shaky financial footing at the moment. These billionaire owners were not willing to eat these losses themselves. They want to be made whole again, and this Super League was their way of doing just that.
And there is one person involved in both the upcoming MLB CBA talks and this failed Super League: John Henry. As the owner of the Red Sox, he’s a very powerful owner. He, along with White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, led the opposition to Rob Manfred being named commissioner seven years ago. You may say “Good, Manfred is a terrible commissioner,” but the candidate of Reinsdorf and Henry, Red Sox part-owner Tom Werner, was expected to be even more hard-line on labor issues than Manfred. Henry failed to get his own man in the commissioner’s office, but Manfred has spent several years winning Henry over to his side, lest he lead an owners revolt against Manfred continuing in the position.
I have no idea whether or not MLB teams have really experienced “biblical losses” after the pandemic or whether they’re just talking about losing the profits that they had expected to receive. I do know that every team owner could sell their team right now for a lot more than they paid for it. Probably not Steve Cohen and the Mets, since he just bought it a few months ago. But everyone else.
I do believe that revenues were way, way down in 2020 and the owners are very unhappy about it. They want to be made “whole” again, and whether or not that is at the expense of the players or the other owners, I’m not sure some of them care.
And that leaves open the possibility of a very unhappy CBA negotiations. The players felt they got shafted in the last CBA and they want the money they didn’t get last time. The owners feel like they lost a lot of money in 2020 and they want that money back as well. And the actions of John Henry in the European Super League demonstrate to me that he’s willing to do almost anything to get those revenues back, including smashing the very basic setup of the sport.
Maybe this is alarmist. Henry is just one owner, albeit a powerful one. But there’s no reason to believe he’s the only one who thinks like this. Could Henry take the Red Sox and five other teams and form a different league? Nah. The legal setup of MLB would forbid that. But he certainly could, along with the Steinbrenners, the Ricketts and the consortium that owns the Dodgers, demand that more of the profits from baseball flow to the top teams in the next CBA. And this would not only pit the players against the owners, but the owners against the other owners. This was the situation in MLB in 1981 and to a lesser extent, 1994. Neither negotiation ended happily.
The European Super League is a symptom of a disease to which not only is MLB not vaccinated against, they’re in a high-risk category.