On that Super League nonsense

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I’ll be the first to admit I’m not completely learned in the ways of men’s soccer’s worldwide economics. I know enough to know, however, that the system that is in place — in Europe, not in the United States’ MLS version of the game — does a better job of promoting competition than an American league like Major League Baseball does. There is a reason that, over the years, you’ve seen more than one writer pine for the idea of relegation in American sport leagues, especially in one like MLB where tanking or actively not trying is so rampant: the threat of being demoted to a lesser league and replaced by a team that is actually trying would provide the kind of motivation missing from the day-to-day and long-term operations of quite a few MLB teams.

The “lesser” leagues in MLB (or in the NBA or NHL) work directly for those major leagues, however, relegation isn’t exactly an option or a desire of them. The NFL and the NBA also get to pluck developing talent from the NCAA, whose corresponding sports are extremely popular and can act as a rival to their major league cousins, but not an on-the-field or on-court rival: just one vying for ratings. The American system is pretty set across all of its major sports, but the owners in those leagues aren’t satisfied with that. They would love to spread the American model overseas, which is how you end up with Boston Red Sox owner John Henry at the center of the Super League idea, as he is also the owner of the Premier League’s Liverpool F.C.

Of course the man who would trade Mookie Betts to save the Red Sox money would also be down to convert the non-American-centric sports leagues under the Union of European Football Associations into more American-minded ones. To create a new-look league where competitiveness is besides the point, and success is awarded, not earned, and comes on the basis of branding: founding members of the Super League would always be in its version of the Champions League playoff system, and never bumped by some upstart that had managed to build a competitive roster and succeed during the season.

Yes, Henry and Co. wanted to build an entire league where teams could just coast on name recognition and the ratings that Important Brand vs. Important Brand television matchups would bring. Like an entire league constructed out of Sunday Night Baseball matchups that absolutely go entirely by fan base size for ratings purposes and not the actual quality of the teams involved. How sterile, how bad for competition… how great for the kinds of advertisers that love Sunday Night Baseball.

Billy Haisley explained all of this in what is still a must-read Defector piece, even if the Super League isn’t going to happen just yet:

In the current system, qualifying for the Champions League is enormously important financially. There is an incredible amount of money in competing in the tournament, primarily in the form of broadcasting rights revenue that is split between the clubs that make it, plus the in-stadium income teams make from selling tickets to what are the very biggest games of the season. Clubs need that money to pay their best players their astronomical salaries, and to pay mountainous transfer fees to acquire more great players, which then ensures continued access to the Champions League’s riches to keep the good times rolling. In the other direction, failure to qualify for the tournament makes paying big salaries and transfer fees much more difficult, and it often makes Champions League-caliber players want to leave your club for one that can offer the big stage and salaries. All of this makes the Champions League a massive reward, but also a massive risk.

And it’s that risk that the big clubs behind the Super League want to eliminate. Those clubs don’t like the fact that qualification for the Champions League is so difficult and competitive, and they find it unfair that they, whose star players and globe-spanning fan bases and historical pedigrees lend the Champions League much of its allure and prestige and popularity, have to risk their asses every season to qualify against some nothing club like West Ham United. Why should West Ham, which is currently on track to qualify for next season’s Champions League, get to swoop in and suck up the tens of millions of dollars on offer there?

The teams that signed up for the Super League wanted all of the cash and none of the risk. Haisley went on to explain that a club like Manchester United can afford to stock up on all of the necessary players to make it to the Champions League every single year, but instead, they’ve been run like a joke for ages, and to them, it’s not fair that other teams with lesser bank accounts can manage to actually attract star talent and win despite holding fewer innate advantages. So, in their minds, eliminating the risk makes sense, instead of just, you know, being better at competing. That would take work and money: nabbing all of the available television ratings money and associated Champions League-esque cash by simply stating that you make it to the tournament every year now by virtue of joining this other league is much easier.

Or, would have been easier, if this didn’t turn out to be like, the single most universally reviled idea in sports. It’s possibly just a temporary victory, though: do you think John Henry and other American F.C. owners learned their lesson here? Or that they haven’t already convinced a whole bunch of other owners who aren’t American but would very much like to hear more about this whole spend less to make more scheme to stick with the plan in the long run? The Americanization of European soccer might happen a little more slowly than the Super League made it seem like it was happening, but owners like Henry already know what it’s like to try less and make more thanks to ventures like the Red Sox. They aren’t going to stop there, even if there was a setback that helped turn them into an international laughing stock and punching bag for a few days. Not when there is so much money at stake.

And as Haisley wrote, this isn’t the case of good guys vs. bad guys — really, read that whole piece. It doesn’t take much thinking to come up with a scenario where the Super League folks convince enough of the rest of the owners that their way is the right way, or find out what kind of compensation is necessary to get the UEFA to not ban all of the Super League (or whatever League) players from international competition, and so on. Or to get a potential broadcasting partner like Amazon to agree to stream games, instead of releasing an “ooooh boy are you guys sure about this, I dunno” statement because they saw which way the wind was blowing. All of this is about money, and money will inevitably direct this story in its post-Super League form, too. This initial attempt didn’t work, but if there is anything we know about how American sports owners work, if there is a lesson Henry and those like him learned from this, it’s that their approach, not their goal, is what will need work.