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At Large: If a European Super League is inevitable the non-elite must assert their value

SportsPro editor-at-large Eoin Connolly looks at the options for the clubs left behind by an elite club soccer breakaway.

by Eoin Connolly
At Large: If a European Super League is inevitable the non-elite must assert their value

By now, you’ll probably have heard the talk about a breakaway European Super League in club soccer.

That, in part, is because it’s now about a week since Germany’s Der Spiegel reported secret discussions to that end involving 16 of the continent’s richest and most-watched teams, gleaned from the treasure trove of tittle-tattle in its often damning ‘Football Leaks’ series. But even if you’ve been sealed in a watertight cabin for the past few days you’ll have likely caught wind of something, because the concept has been aired periodically for two decades or more.

At times it’s been framed as an idle threat leveraged for better treatment, like an eight-year-old insisting he’ll run away from home, but there are moments when it seems chillingly plausible, like an 18-year-old claiming he’ll never leave. The latest bout of speculation can probably be pitched somewhere in the middle.

There is scant detail in the correspondence circulated so far about how exactly this luxury escape would be achieved, but the drumbeat of commentary around a supranational club competition has been persistent in recent months. Senior executives like Juventus chief Andrea Agnelli have openly floated the possibility while respected observers like Arsène Wenger, the long-serving and impeccably connected former Arsenal manager, have attested to its inevitability. On Wednesday the one-time Manchester City chief executive Garry Cook, who now heads up esports promoter Gfinity, told media assembled at the Sport Industry Breakfast Club that he too expected it to happen.

With negotiations looming around the global soccer calendar for the early to mid-part of the 2020s – as explained, gratuitous plug fans, by New York Times reporter Tariq Panja on this week’s SportsPro Podcast – this is a moment where the strongest few will press harder on the weak points. The much-publicised, apparently SoftBank and Saudi-backed plans for a US$25 billion expansion of the Fifa Club World Cup are being worked to a similar deadline.

Senior executives like Juventus chief Andrea Agnelli have openly long-floated the possibility of a European Super League

A Super League project would face its share of difficulties, not least if it were to proceed without official sanction. Fifa has already suggested that it will bar any participants in an unlicensed league from playing in its own events – which could create a choice for many between maximal income and a place at the World Cup – while there are also indications that European competition law may not be too accommodating. In purely conceptual terms, the new league also has its rougher points: the risk of staleness in a closed-off contest is pretty high, particularly without the kind of draft and salary cap system employed in the NFL, NBA and cricket’s IPL.

But even if a route can be plotted through those obstacles – and will plus means quite often equals way – the more interesting half of this hypothetical new order does not involve the richest but the rest.

In most of European soccer, all seriously competitive clubs are part of the same system. If you run a team at any level of that structure, and can string enough promotions together, you can in theory reach the very top and access the bounty that comes with such an achievement. The Super League concept as discussed puts a ceiling on those ambitions, for teams if not for players.

Fundamentally, though, none of those clubs are going away, and all of them would retain a bundle of significant assets. Heritage is one of them, with long-ingrained fanbases and historic rivalries. Context is another: teams with a sense of place, playing in competitions that are relevant to their supporters. And they would retain a significant role in talent pathways – even if the very best players end up outside the recognised system, a majority would get noticed within it.

All of that means there would be an incentive for clubs to shore things up, individually and collectively. Denied the trickle-down flow of media rights cash from the most visible of their number, and potentially less desirable to outside investors as a result, these sides would first of all need to focus inwards and optimise every element of their operation. Every advantage would be sought, every skill maximised, every efficiency exploited.

At times a Super League been framed as an idle threat leveraged for better treatment, like an eight-year-old insisting he’ll run away from home, but there are moments when it seems chillingly plausible, like an 18-year-old claiming he’ll never leave

English second-tier club Brentford have shown that savvy decisions can allow small clubs to punch above their weight

The smartest clubs would pull their fans closer, reinforcing culture and identity, establishing the strongest possible links with supporter groups, responding to their needs, and being their advocates in the public space. With the demographics among soccer’s followers and its youngest players changing year after year, inclusivity would be the watchword.

There are dozens of clubs across the top flights of Europe who are already well set up to accomplish this. The likes of La Liga’s tiny Eibar are making an international impression and even in the lower divisions, there are examples of how to overcome harsh conditions or do things another way.

In England’s second tier, west London side Brentford have defied gravity for several years to stay in regular play-off contention. The Bees recruit smartly on the field to do that while off it, they engage the help of data agency Two Circles to develop a constructive relationship with their fans and learn where they can pick up support that hasn’t had its head turned by local giants like Chelsea. The pubs on each corner of their Griffin Park home – a tiny, out of code ground with concrete terraces and corrugated roofs, soon to be left for a new venue nearby  – buzz contentedly ahead of most games.

Over in Germany, Hamburg’s FC St Pauli are long established as a counter-cultural phenomenon, an identity spun savvily into a strong commercial and merchandise operation in countries around the world. They might even return to the Bundesliga at the end of this season.

At a league level, a similar rigour can be applied to understanding what the broadcast product would look like without the big boys, laying out in detail who would watch, where and how, whether through mass viewing platforms or tailored OTT experiences like the EFL’s iFollow. The best players might depart, but a contrast could be drawn between the gilded stasis of the Super League and the great mass of drama on offer among the rank and file – a vision to compete properly with what the new product might become.

Most of this, of course, is just an extension of the kind of best practice that should already be in evidence, only woven through circumstance into a more collaborative approach. And it is timely for all teams to be thinking about this. Whether via some form of Super League or regional efforts like the similarly long-mooted North Atlantic League, the competitive map of European club soccer seems sure to be redrawn.

By asserting their own value, those beyond the elite might at least get a say in where the lines go.