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.
Calling them “Solidarity” payments not only rings the bell on resonance but also offers a less gritty gutter overtone than the more plebeian term “bribe”. In many ways recent American history can be viewed as an endless soulful search for nicer ways to say “bribe”. Add solidarity to the list. Mark Emmert will be pleased.
yes I would be very nervous about those ‘solidarity’ payments if I were a non-super-league club. those multi-billionaires (including Stan Kroenke, owner of Arsenal and the LA Rams) didn’t get mega-rich by giving away so much as a dime. as to Art’s larger point: yes, change is coming to the NCAA. I would love college football to remain regional, but if there’s money to be made by upending the current system, and making it national, that’s a powerful force. hard to say how it might turn out. but a relegation and promotion system. . . why not? there are a lot of divisions in English soccer, all with fans, history, tradition, that aren’t in the Premier League but are still viable. it might work . . .
It’s the regional aspect of college football that I love. “We” (the Washington Huskies and the Pac 12) are west coast college football. That’s “our” identity. I barely pay attention to the SEC, the ACC, the Ivy League, the mid-majors and other Power 5’s. I guess I do pay some attention to the Big Ten (14) because of the decades of Rose Bowl rivalry. I honestly was “meh” when Browning-Gaskin-Ross played Alabama in the national semi-final. I would have rather seen the Huskies battle Michigan in the Rose Bowl.
I respect the view, but suspect it’s a minority one, a small one at that. The business model today is go big or go home. It’s why local journalism is near death.
Art, did you see the story in the Times this week about the Robinson newspapers?
Yes. I know of the Robinson clan, but don’t know them, They are the latest in a long list of local voices lost to the velociraptors at Google and Facebook.
And I thought the only velociraptor was in Toronto?
I get why some enjoy regionalism, but the CFP rearranged the priority for every big-time program. The money and power come with making the four-team national field. That’s why expansion to eight (at least) is inevitable, and a step toward a super league.
Payoff, buy-out, bribe — it’s compensation for loss or disengagement. Some start-up companies are built only to sell their independence for cash. Typically the term bribe applies to public officials, but they run 10 colleges in the Pac-12.
There are many transactional forms of the bribe. This would’ve for acquiescence in the heist.
When Euro soccer teams get relegated, they receive a “solidarity”, i.e. “parachute”, payment to cushion the blow of the reduced revenue streams in the lower division. In case of a college Super League, solidarity payments would look like a couple of billion dollars divvied up between the remaining Big XII schools in exchange for Texas and Oklahoma football departing.
Has the “super league” of the CFP churned more interest or more revenues for college football, outside of the South? Does anyone north of the Mason-Dixon line really care about another game between Clemson and Alabama (except for perhaps Ohio State)? I know I don’t. Perhaps a super league that excludes Washington could return a Rose Bowl game in Pasadena on January 1st between the Pac 10 champion (USC and Oregon off to the super league) and the Big Ten champion (with actually 10 teams)? That “back to the future” journey would be a good thing.
The notion of geography-based conferences began when trains were the only form of mass transport. These days, except for the SEC, I don’t see much passion for conference-based cheering, aside from whatever TV revs it generates. There’s a greater national audience for big games between big teams, which means more money for ESPN, the driver in all this.
can’t we just relegate Wazzu now and be done with it?
See? Already the Apple Cup has become more interesting.
The Apple Cup is always interesting.
If you’re an alum, maybe. Many new folks have come to town who aren’t.
It has nothing on the 94 meetings between PLU and UPS.
Oh…why not. I’m at the point with college sports that I’m tired of the usual suspects being at the top of the heap at the end of the season. It’s virtually impossible not to bend some rules to succeed and coaches have to do so much more than coach to keep their job. Top players are more of an enterprise than a top player. It’d be a way for the Cougs to finally break out and the Huskies to finally get back to Don James success. College sports is not some sacred cow and the milk it provides is never pure, to paraphrase Howard Cossell.
Worn you down, eh? I prefer college sports with greatly reduced hypocrisy (“student-athlete”? yeah, right) and greatly increased fairness for players. If there will be national laws governing compensation and recruiting, there should be uniform governance.
“ESPN, which is the unofficial but very real owner of college football”
The exact statement of what is ruining college football and college sports in general. Do I think the athletes deserve more compensation, of course but the rabbit hole ESPN is leading college sports into to me is very sad. To much power leads to to much arrogance and only the select few that they allow will prosper. How about ESPN forms their own pro leagues and colleges go back to institutes of higher learning? Ha Ha…………pipe dream I know but it would be nice to see ESPN go the F away
ESPN has a voracious need for content to plunder its advertisers, and college football is thrilled to oblige. The only way big schools can pay pro salaries to college coaches is to sell the free labor of its students. Soon enough, player will demand and get cash compensation from the system, not just advertisers, and the house of cards collapses.
Very infomative, though I strongly disagree with your definition of Socialism, the ultimate expression of which is tyrrany and financial ruin (see Venezuela).
The billionaires who purchased the big Euro soccer clubs were completely clueless about the culture of soccer there, and the outsized roles the fans play. Teams are seen to “belong” to the fans, and the owners are deemed mere “caretakers/stewards” of the teams for the fans’ benefits, not as investors looking for a profit vehicle like here. Many clubs sell ownership shares of the club to the fans, sometimes even via the stock market. (In fact, Germany’s “50+1” rule requires 50 percent plus one share of all a team’s ownership shares to be held by the fans.) Supporters often have voting rights on team decisions, like how Sounders fans can vote out the GM, and pressure campaigns have forced more than one club to reverse an unpopular decision.
Problem is, these Middle East oil sheiks, American NFL owners and Russian oligarchs recently buying the big Euro teams have no concept of such fan involvement; they’re used to getting their way by throwing their cash around and steamrolling anybody who tries to stop them. The leveraged buyouts and hostile takeovers they used to buy the teams riled fans not used to having no say in team affairs, and the jacked-up ticket prices froze out the working-class backbones of the fan bases.
Supporters also hate how this cash influx artificially inflated the power of beforehand so-so teams; Chelsea were underachievers until Roman Abromavich’s billions, Manchester City was in Division 3 (!) in the late ’90s, Atletico Madrid was nothing special until a few years ago, and most Parisians don’t even care about Paris Saint-Germain. In short, they feel these new owners have cost club soccer its soul, and the Super League was the last straw.
Interesting to think how college football fans would react to a Super League there. Their voices won’t be as impactful as Euro soccer fans’, thanks to TV and Nike money, but I’m sure they’ll have something to say.