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European Soccer’s American Owners Tried to Form a U.S.-Style ‘Super League.’ It Hasn’t Gone Well

5 minute read

Over the years, I’ve noticed American sports fans expressing more and more admiration for the system of relegation that has defined European soccer for decades. In leagues such as the English Premier League, the teams that underperform get booted from the top division, swapping spaces with a second division club that has earned its keep. Imagine if, say, the New York Knicks or New York Mets or New York Jets could be banished to the minors after so many years of mediocrity? Maybe they’d win more! (To be fair, the Knicks are pretty good this year).

But guess what? While we Americans have looked fondly at a European system that gives so many teams a chance, the gilded billionaire class running soccer across the Atlantic just showed they very much prefer the American way. That’s a clear takeaway from the mooted formation of the Super League, a breakaway soccer competition launched with great fanfare over the weekend and apparently now already at risk of collapse 48 hours later, after fans and players revolted.

The league was to be composed of a dozen original permanent members—Manchester United, Liverpool, Manchester City, Chelsea, Tottenham and Arsenal from England, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atlético Madrid from Spain, and Juventus, Inter Milan and A.C. Milan from Italy—plus three more yet-to-be-determined permanent members and five rotating members eligible to join based on an unspecified qualification procedure (how kind!).

The league’s plan was to sell billions in TV rights and control the coffers. Under the current soccer model, the best teams in Europe’s domestic leagues qualify for the UEFA Champions League, which crowns a continental champion each year. The Super League would directly compete with the Champions League, but unlike the latter the 15 permanent franchises would qualify for the competition no matter how badly they perform. In this way, the “closed” system resembles American major leagues like NFL. Just as the Jacksonville Jaguars compete every year in the NFL, so, in the Super League, would Liverpool.

Which is a club, not so coincidentally, that is owned by Fenway Sports Group, the American organization that also controls the Boston Red Sox, which plays in the closed MLB. Arsenal is owned by Stan Kroenke, who also owns the Los Angeles Rams, Denver Nuggets, and Colorado Avalanche. The Glazer family owns Manchester United—and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Elliott Management, a U.S. hedge fund, owns AC Milan. An American bank, JP Morgan Chase, is providing financial backing for the Super League.

This American influence has hardly gone unnoticed. An Israeli sports media outlet displayed an American flag in the background of a piece on the Super League. Tim Pritchard, an advertising executive based in London—and an Arsenal season ticket holder for 11 years—noted that fans should have seen this change to a closed operation coming, given the American investment in the game. “The franchise model itself takes a sports club, which at heart was a community institution, and turns it more obliquely into a marketing engine,” says Pritchard. “It does certainly feel like what’s at play here.”

Pritchard says a WhatsApp group made up of his friends who go to Arsenal games together is buzzing. “I think there’s a feeling of, not being betrayed by your club, because we always knew it was commercial,” says Pritchard, “but feeling like, they’ve potentially played a pretty aggressive hand, and one that brings into real question the relationship that fans have with a club. There’s no doubt that I feel less of an Arsenal fan.”

Condemnation of the Super League as a cynical money grab was swift, and near-unanimous — even from the highest-ranking employees of the clubs. Liverpool coach Jurgen Klopp came out against the plan and his captain, James Milner, agreed with him.

Opposition to the Super League united European leaders from Boris Johnson to Emmanuel Macron. Prince William, president of the Football Association, said he shared the concerns of fans. In the U.S., expatriate Brit James Corden offered an impassioned, more than six minute argument against the Super League on his late night TV show. “Football is a focal point, of a town’s hopes and dreams,” said Corden. “That’s what it is.”

“The unanimity of negative response over here has been quite something to behold,” says Dan Jones, lead partner Deloitte’s Sports Business Group. “I can’t recall the last thing I saw that had such universal condemnation.” To Jones, the Super League is a bad business bet when the current European soccer leagues are largely beloved and awash in riches. “I don’t get it,” says Jones. “I don’t think it makes any sense. This is a new product that’s being suggested, and the market research feedback you’ve had in the first 48 hours from your prospective customers is universally negative. In any business, that would cause you to pause and think again.”

That’s apparently what has now happened, as Chelsea and Manchester City have reportedly withdrawn as founder members with others considering their positions. The American owners must be wondering where they went wrong, especially as closed sports models back home reap billions but also attract rabid fan bases. Take college football, for example, in which a sort of breakaway group of “Power Five” conferences largely call the shots—and keep the little guys out of the post-season playoff party. Those college athletic administrators officials know how to hoard checks.

The Super League carries with it a uniquely American ethos. Perhaps that’s why, out of place in Europe, it was doomed to fail.

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com