From the place of a disinterested observer (not uninterested; there’s a difference), European soccer’s abrupt break-up of the idea of a Super League was a crack-up.
The proposed imposition of an NFL-style structure (salary caps, playoffs, etc.) for a new enterprise that sought to cherry-pick up to 20 teams from Europe’s top national leagues had less chance of succeeding than a blues album from Rick Rizzs.
There’s a simple explanation for the plan’s failure that even non-soccer fans can appreciate:
It’s hard to stage a rebellion from the top.
A deep, informative explanation from the New York Times is linked here. It includes a summary paragraph about the have clubs and have-not clubs that make up the business model of European soccer and elsewhere around the world (although notably not Major League Soccer):
An uneasy truce between the two faces of the world’s game had held for decades. And then, on Sunday night, it cracked, as an unlikely alliance of American hedge funds, Russian oligarchs, European industrial tycoons and Gulf royals sought to seize control of the revenues of the world’s most popular sport by creating a closed European superleague.
The description of the perps doesn’t seem to match the vast majority of people we’ve read about that populated rebellions of a much more important nature in America, France, Russia, Cuba, etc. Each political rebellion was unique, but all shared some kind of unifying rage against oppression by the powerful.
In soccer’s case, it was the powerful who sought freedom from the sweltering masses of teams perpetually under-funded, but nevertheless beloved by supporters.
Y’know, like American college football.
It’s the one sport in the U.S. that shares some business characteristics with European soccer leagues. It’s full of fiefdoms, principalities and territories aligned in a loose confederation of unequals whose rules are subject to rampant corruption, perfidies and misdeeds.
The biggest difference is that college football faces an existential threat to its foundational principle: Amateurism.
The widespread movement toward protection of the rights and welfare of players is upon a decisive moment: The NCAA, under siege by individual states passing laws allowing players to receive outside money for use of their names, images and likenesses (NIL), has run to Congress seeking legislation to create federal laws this year to manage the distribution of the cash and punish violators.
It’s a cry for help. The NCAA knows it’s in big trouble.
Whatever shape and form the revolution takes, the top programs in the Power 5 conferences understand that the business is about to change forever. It’s the beginning of a professionalization of the college game that eventually will shed amateurism in favor of fairness.
It has led to increasing speculation that the top college teams with giant athletic budgets will break from their conferences and band together — a TV-money-driven super league. ESPN last week created a story about which 12 to 15 programs might be included. And if ESPN, which is the unofficial but very real owner of college football, is publicly fanning the flames, you know that back-room discussions are further down the road.
The biggest casualties of this potential outcome are, of course, the remaining 115 or so Division I teams left out of the super league. Games among them will recede to a national backwater.
Yet there are a couple of elements from the soccer fracas that illuminate at least a partial solution.
One of the more attractive features of the Euro style is promotion/relegation, in which the worst teams in a season drop down in class, and best lower division teams are elevated to replace them in the next season. If college football’s super league field is expanded to 24 or 32 and the bottom six or eight spots are subject to relegation, the added relevance adds a second tier of nearly season-long TV drama.
The second bit of intrigue in soccer, which never reached the explanation stage before the plug was pulled, was a commitment from the super league to share profits with the affected national leagues. The fund reportedly would be up to $10 billion over the 23-year length of the proposed agreement. The concept was called “solidarity payments.”
In college football, a similar pledge would amount to a subsidy from the high-performance teams to help sustain the athletic budgets of the rest of Division I impacted by the transformation.
No one has any public idea the amount of revenues the super league would generate, nor what the have-nots would need to survive.
The point here is the notion of “solidarity” is a whole lot more resonant than abandonment.
These ideas are not applicable to American pro sports because all the leagues rest upon the best aspects of world’s two most prevalent forms of economic enterprise, capitalism and socialism.
Capitalism’s ultimate expression is monopoly, and socialism’s ultimate expression is equal distribution of rights, goods and services.
The best example is happening this week: The NFL draft.
The premier laborers seeking employment in pro football have no choice but to participate in the draft. The draft’s reverse order helps distribute the best players to the worst teams, thus helping create more competitive franchises that drive, nationally and globally, the sales of TV and streaming rights, tickets and merchandise. Capitalism and socialism, together.
It’s no wonder the globe’s oligarch soccer owners want to reform Europe into the NFL model. Every night American pro football owners sleep easily, knowing no matter how badly they screw up the team, the economic part of the game is idiot-proof.
For the longest time, college football seemed idiot-proof too.
Then somebody realized as TV revenues exploded, that the value of a college scholarship, because of the restrictions placed on it and the difficulty of portability, is worth a whole lot less than the marketplace’s cash compensation for hours worked on behalf of the entertainment department of the university.
Once the new NIL rules and regs are in place this fall, college football will be in a different economic world, one whose business framework could be re-done like European soccer.
Imagine an Apple Cup in which the loser gets relegated. Now those are some stakes.