It says a lot that Silvio Berlusconi didn't really know what teams he was talking about adding when he campaigned for a European Super League in the late 1980s.
The AC Milan owner, cable television impresario and future Italian prime minister knew that the structure of the European Cup of the time -- a giant, random-draw knockout tournament with minimal impact from seeding -- was taking potential television revenue off the table. Real Madrid and Diego Maradona's Napoli were paired in the first round of the 1987-88 Cup, ensuring that one of the biggest draws in the field was guaranteed immediate elimination, while teams like Switzerland's Neuchatel Xamax, Norway's Lillestrom, Cyprus' Omonia and Poland's Gornik Zabrze all advanced over lesser competition. Portugal's Benfica would win the cup that year without beating a single team from what we would now call Europe's "Big Five" leagues.
That made little sense to the TV-minded Berlusconi. He sought a television league that could regularly feature the continent's biggest brands... whatever those were. In 1987, he named familiar teams like Spain's Barcelona and Real Madrid, West Germany's Bayern Munich and Italy's Juventus and Napoli in addition to his Milan, but he also mentioned Belgium's Anderlecht, winners of three European tournaments over the previous decade. In 1988, he and others suggested Scotland's Rangers could be added to the pool. (In case his television goals weren't clear enough, he also proposed a tournament with all previous European Cup winners that year.)
In 1989, while frowning on British clubs because of hooliganism, the Heysel ban and also decrepit stadiums, he instead proposed pursuing teams like France's Bordeaux, the Netherlands' PSV Eindhoven and Sweden's IFK Goteborg. For a super league!
Scrolling through newspaper archives from the 1980s, you find all sorts of refrains familiar to the 2020s: that money is the root of all evil, that television is ruining the beautiful game, that teams pursuing glory should be privy to more of TV's riches, and so on. (This went for both Berlusconi's Super League and, in England, the big clubs' pursuit of an arrangement that would eventually become the Premier League.)
Everyone and everything eventually chases television, and everything worth loving by millions ends up regarded first and foremost as a commodity and source of profit. That European soccer eventually went down a road including April's ruinous (and failed) Super League attempt wasn't a surprise, but what mistakes did UEFA, European soccer's governing body, actually make along the way? What could have prevented the inequality that has long threatened the sport's integrity while still allowing for the positive effects of increased TV money? And what could UEFA do differently from this point forward to avoid similar threats in the future?
Be the SEC, not the Big 12
One of the biggest arguments in college football's great conference realignment saga of 2009-11 came over distribution of television revenue. In the lucrative SEC and Big Ten, such money was distributed evenly among members. The Big 12 Conference, however, teetered on the brink of collapse; a lot of the instability had to do with perceived unequal treatment and the fact that revenue distribution was dictated by the number of times a team appeared on television.
In 2007-08, Texas and Oklahoma, the conference's biggest brands, earned 44% more of the television pot than last-place Baylor. Missouri and Kansas each enjoyed breakthrough seasons on the gridiron (and Kansas won the basketball national title as well), but still combined to earn 13% less than UT and OU. Nebraska left for the Big Ten in 2010 and Colorado left for the Pac-12; when Texas took steps to also work with ESPN to create what would become the Longhorn Network -- the Big Ten had its own, lucrative conference-wide network, and the SEC would soon create its own with ESPN, as well -- that was the last straw for two more schools, as Texas A&M and Missouri departed for the SEC in 2011.
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The Big 12 narrowly managed to survive this shift, plucking Texas Christian University (TCU) from the Mountain West and the geographically incongruous West Virginia from the Big East, soldiering on with 10 teams. (No, it did not change its name.) But the damaging effects were obvious. Allowing disparate treatment of teams within a given league or group encourages both inequality and instability.
Oh, and building its own network didn't make Texas better on the field, by the way. In terms of win percentage, the 2010s were the Longhorns' worst decade since the 1930s. Meanwhile, the SEC's Alabama has won six of the sport's last 12 national titles despite sharing TV revenue equally with lower-tier teams like Vanderbilt and the conference's newcomers.
The brands can still shine while allowing others to partake in television's riches. If there's one lesson UEFA could have benefited from over the last 30 years, it's that
Television, and the revenue it produces, has made soccer more beloved and appreciated than ever before. It made the sport's big brands far bigger and more recognizable, and bringing more money into the sport has led to better coaching, better fitness practices (and therefore longer player careers) and more money for players -- once they fought to be properly compensated and cared for, anyway, as has happened at some point in every professional sport.
Berlusconi wasn't wrong in some of his complaints about the European Cup format -- college basketball's massively successful NCAA tournament, after all, is rigidly seeded and assures that none of the top four teams can play each other before the semifinals at the earliest. That he and big clubs would apply pressure to change the format, and that UEFA got caught up chasing money and allowing these changes to take place, don't have to be inherently bad things.
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Where UEFA went wrong, however, is when it allowed big clubs' advantages to get hardwired into revenue distribution
The 2003-04 Champions League was one of the wackiest in memory. Pre-tournament favorites Real Madrid, Juventus, Milan and Manchester United were all ousted before the semifinals, and Jose Mourinho's Porto rolled to the title with a 3-0 final win over Monaco.
From the pot of revenue distribution, Porto made €29.98 million for its efforts. Manchester United, ousted by Porto in the round of 16, made 42% more (€42.5 million) despite playing five fewer matches. Quarterfinalist Arsenal (€43.3 million) and semifinalist Chelsea (€44 million) made even more. Sparta Prague made €9.6 million for being ousted in the same round as United. Six teams that didn't even reach the knockout rounds took home more cash than Sparta.
The culprit: the "market pool," which as of 2019-20 accounts for 15% of all revenue distribution and, according to UEFA's website, is "distributed in accordance with the proportional value of each TV market represented by clubs taking part in the UEFA Champions League (group stage onwards)." From this pool, Arsenal made over €30 million; Sparta earned €153,000. Over the 10 Champions Leagues from 2009-10 to 2018-19, Juventus made over €300 million from "market pool" distribution alone (despite missing the 2010-11 and 2011-12 tournaments!), while PSG, Barcelona, Chelsea, Real Madrid, Manchester City and Bayern Munich each made more than €200 million.
Of the 98 teams that participated in the Champions League group stage in that span, 11 teams combined to make more from this stream than the other 87.
As of 2019-20, 30% of revenue is now also distributed "on the basis of 10-year performance-based coefficient rankings" -- the same amount that's allocated for actual performance in the tournament. It's what allowed Barcelona to make €117.7 million for reaching the semifinals in 2019 while fellow semifinalist Ajax made €39 million less. (That difference then accounted for about half the transfer fee when Barca acquired Ajax star Frenkie de Jong a couple of months later.) Remove the coefficients and market pool and re-distribute the rest based solely on participation and performance, and both teams would have made around €105-110 million.
Actually, remove the coefficients and market pool from a decade's worth of Champions League payments (2009-10 to 2018-19), and you get a pretty clear picture of who this helped and hurt.
Teams that would have made far less if Champions League payments had been based solely on participation and performance, not markets or coefficients*:
1. Juventus (-€155.4 million)
2. PSG (-€102.4 million)
3. Chelsea (-€83.4 million)
4. Roma (-€75.0 million)
5. Manchester City (-€74.3 million)
Teams that would have made far more:
1. Porto (€91.8 million)
2. Shakhtar Donetsk (€60.8 million)
3. Benfica (€57.7 million)
4. Basel (€56.4 million)
5. CSKA Moscow (€47.4 million)
(* For this exercise, I took the money that was allotted to the market pool and, for 2018-19, coefficients, and re-distributed it based on the percentage of participation and performance money they made in that given tournament.)
Teams like Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich, which indeed benefited from the market pool but also consistently performed well in the Champions League, actually should have made a smidge more than they did. But teams like Juventus (two finals appearances, but only six appearances in the knockout rounds) and PSG (zero semifinal or finals appearances until last season) did not earn their keep. And this superclub-friendly arrangement also prevented Porto (six knockout rounds, two quarterfinals) from earning anywhere close to what it should have.
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During the Super League's rise and blink-and-you-miss-it fall, we heard a lot about the value of merit. You must earn your place in your league, you must win to reap the spoils. But this is not merit; it's a combination of legacy and extortion. Whenever it was time to negotiate future distributions, big clubs leaned on the fear of a super league to ensure more money would end up in their coffers, whether they actually earned it or not. And when combined with some of the leverage teams in leagues like La Liga (Real Madrid and Barcelona) and Serie A (Juventus, AC Milan, Inter) have applied domestically to assure that their own TV deals are far better than those of their league mates, the effects are both measurable and grotesque.
EloFootball.com has produced ratings for European football dating back to the mid-1950s. In the 1990s, 35 different teams finished in the Elo top 10 in at least one season. If we assign a simple points system to the top 10 teams -- 10 points for finishing the season No. 1, nine points for No. 2, down to one point for No. 10 -- we find that the top 11 teams of the decade (Manchester United, AC Milan, Bayern Munich, Juventus, Arsenal, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Lazio, Ajax, Liverpool and Porto) accounted for 74% of all the points divvied out.
In the 2010s, only 23 teams finished in the Elo top 10 at least once, and the top 11 teams (Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern, Juventus, Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea, Atletico Madrid, Manchester United, Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool) accounted for 92% of all points. Twenty-two different clubs made the European Cup/Champions League semifinals** at least once in the 1990s, and none did so more than four times; in the 2010s, only 17 different clubs reached the semis, and three -- Real Madrid, Bayern and Barcelona -- gobbled up 21 of 40 semifinal appearances by themselves.
(** For the tournaments of 1992-94, which featured group stages to determine finalists, this includes the teams that finished second in each group.)
A lot of the most successful clubs of the 1990s and 2010s are the same, but their dominance is far greater now. At the end of the 1990-91 season, the highest-ranked team (per EloFootball) had a rating of 2,135 points; 30 years later, Borussia Dortmund ranks 14th with 2,136. Bayern and Juve have long been regarded as dominant forces in their respective countries, but while they combined to win seven league titles in the 1990s, Juve has currently won nine in a row and Bayern is about to win its ninth in a row.
Before they announced they were breaking from UEFA's grasp altogether, the Super League 12 forced more changes to the Champions League. The group stage has been expanded from six to 10 games per team -- more matches means more gate receipts and, of course, more television revenue -- while the knockout stages will include 24 teams instead of 16. Plus, while four more teams will be added to the tournament, two of these extra bids will go to non-qualifying teams with the highest 10-year coefficient rankings; now, the richest and most successful clubs can qualify even when they don't qualify.
If any actual repercussions come from the Super League escapades and more egalitarian measures can be pursued, sanding down these extra layers of super-club benefits would be a good place to start.
The distribution of money in soccer has made the sport nearly blip-proof
College football fans still rave and reminisce about the vaunted 2007 season, in which most of the sport's biggest names struggled and lesser lights like South Florida, Boston College, California, Missouri and Kansas all spent time harboring legitimate national title hopes. Getting just a little bit of proof that blips and chaos are possible goes a long way and makes fans of the Boston Colleges and Mizzous -- or, in this case, the Bolognas and Montpelliers -- of the world feel like actually valuable pieces of the ecosystem.
As the Florentino Perezes and Joan Laportas of the world are happy to tell you, people watch the brands. A Real Madrid-Manchester United Champions League final would almost certainly earn bigger ratings than Atalanta vs. RB Leipzig, no matter how much more entertaining the latter matchup might be than the former.
That, however, doesn't justify the constant tilting of the playing field, especially when it comes at the expense of other clubs that could become bigger brands in a fairer environment. It doesn't justify the sort of reckless (and somewhat unsuccessful) spending that were making clubs like Perez's Real Madrid, Laporta's Barcelona and Andrea Agnelli's Juventus financially vulnerable even before the effects of the pandemic became clear. And it most certainly doesn't justify the nearly hostage-taking "for the sport to be healthy, we must be healthy" logic -- as Rory Smith put it in his newsletter last week, "Give us what we want, and we can give you what you want" -- that these men have used to justify their attempt at generating even more cash for themselves at the expense of others.
It does, however, create short-term problems that make potential long-term moves tricky. UEFA could learn from its biggest mistakes of the past 30 years to create an environment that is both healthier and more competitive, but it would require putting some big brands at further financial risk. Some moves, however, could also help to save these clubs from themselves.
Four options for UEFA when it comes to restoring some balance
Ditch the market pool and coefficient payments. Do this for all the reasons mentioned above. It increases inequality, and it is not based in present-tense merit.
Increase solidarity payments. One of the more patronizing parts of the Super League's initial statements was when it promised solidarity payments (the amount of money reserved for distribution to lower-level leagues and clubs) that were "substantially higher than those generated by the current European competition." It gave no further detail about amounts or timelines; it offered no direct justification for why a 12-club entity could properly execute the trickle-down economics model that has had an approximately zero-percent success rate in any industry (in terms of actually improving industry health or equality). It also contradicted years of campaigning to keep the percentage of Champions League and other revenue reserved for these payments as low as possible.
Why worry about ensuring that money trickles downstream when you can just send it down to begin with? UEFA's HatTrick program, a "solidarity and development program" built around investment, staff education and knowledge-sharing/resource building, is one of its more intriguing ideas. Fuller funding would only increase its odds of success.
Lower registration limits. ESPN's Gabriele Marcotti explored this idea in early-2020; while leaders of Bayern Munich and the German DFB have been attempting to push for a salary cap, you could accomplish something similar by further limiting the number of players a team can register for league play.
In the Premier League, for instance, you can register up to 25 players aged 22 and older for league play. Any limit is better than none, but the number is high enough that richer clubs end up stashing away certain players -- Manchester United's Jesse Lingard, for instance, had played under 1,000 league minutes since the start of 2019-20 before he was finally loaned to West Ham United this winter and made an immediate impact. Lowering that limit would theoretically both cut big clubs' payrolls and allow talent once deemed "worthy" of big clubs to spread a bit more throughout the ecosystem. It could benefit teams in terms of both cost and talent availability. A win-win.
Encourage creativity. Some of the logic of establishing the Super League was simple but undeniable: (a) big matches make lots more money than smaller matches, therefore (b) we should therefore play as many big matches as possible. As an ethos, that's pretty good; the execution of said idea was flawed, to say the least, but when possible it could still be followed.
In 2000, representatives from PSV Eindhoven attempted to form what they called the Atlantic League, a competition that would bring together powerhouses from lots of second-tier leagues -- the Netherlands (PSV, Ajax, Feyenoord), Portugal (Benfica, Porto), Scotland (Celtic, Rangers), Belgium (Club Brugge), etc. -- for the purpose of both increasing exposure to good competition and making lots more money. The idea re-emerged a few times through the years and, in 2003, morphed into something called the North Atlantic League Cup, but it never had the proper backing of UEFA and national leagues.
With the introduction of a third annual UEFA tournament, the Europa Conference League, something like this won't work logistically, but that doesn't mean there's not a place for creativity.
Could there be value in seeing a similar idea slotted into the late-season schedule among countries that break their top teams off into "championship groups" like Scotland, Austria, Belgium and Denmark? Should an idea like the BeNeLiga -- an oft-discussed merger of sorts between Belgium's and the Netherlands' national leagues, which would produce a rock-solid set of top-division teams -- be given more traction? And if the goal is pursuing high-quality, high-stakes, television-friendly matchups, couldn't we make more of the Champions League qualifying process?
While fans of non-Super League clubs have called for vengeance and punishment against the clubs that sought to enrich themselves seemingly at the expense of everyone else, it doesn't appear UEFA is going to do anything particularly drastic. But it really doesn't have to. More subtle moves like the ones above could prove UEFA has learned from some of its early mistakes and could also create long-term, parity-friendly effects. It might also start getting Porto some of the damn money that it's owed.