One year ago this week, the European Super League came into existence (for about a week). The experiment was a failure in execution, but it was also a warning for other sports leagues worldwide. Soccer has seen an increased concentration of money at the top of the pyramid through the years, but the attempt to form the Super League represented an entirely different level of that trend. What ended up being the Super League’s demise was fan backlash: people simply hated the idea because of what it meant for the vast majority of clubs out there.
The true origins of the idea behind the Super League are impossible to isolate. For decades, owners of top teams campaigned for changes against the format of the European Cup, which was the annual tournament of club champions from throughout the continent. The Cup featured a random draw, which meant that the continent’s biggest names risked getting eliminated before the later rounds, risking embarrassment and financial losses for the club. In response, UEFA changed the cup format to the “Champions League” by introducing a group stage to assure big names played multiple matches and eventually allowing the most successful leagues to bring multiple teams to the party. Unsurprisingly, the prospect of playing in the Champions League became a major recruitment draw for players deciding which team to join, and talent coalesced toward a select few programs. (Conveniently, those were the clubs that could also pay the highest salaries because of how lucrative the Champions League quickly became.) Success reinforced success.
As successful as the Champions League was in Europe, rumours of a supposed “Super League” never really disappeared. And in the aftermath of the COVID epidemic, with clubs experiencing dramatic financial losses, the environment was ripe. The Super League was announced in April 2021. It collapsed a few days later amid epic fan backlash, potential UEFA sanctions, and a lack of genuine commitment from the English clubs involved. The English clubs backed out first, and most others followed, leaving Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus —clubs particularly desperate to figure out ways to match the Premier League from a revenue standpoint — to spend the past year insisting to anyone who would listen that plans are simply on hiatus.
UEFA sanctions the Champions League and other tournaments, represents the continent’s football leagues, and boasts some sanctioning power. It ended up having just enough influence to help dictate the Super League’s failure. French superclub Paris Saint-Germain turned down Super League advances, in part because its CEO is on UEFA’s executive committee. Combined with the absence of any German club (both Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund both reportedly turned down advances in a show of solidarity with the Bundesliga), meant the Super League roster wasn’t entirely comprehensive. Plus, UEFA’s ability to threaten sanctions immediately tested the English clubs’ resolve.
Although the Super League failed, the way it came about, and the idea it represented, could easily take root in other sports, if it hasn’t already. Many sports do not have effective leadership at the top. When too many people have a hand in a sport’s leadership, it’s equivalent to no one leading it at all. And when that’s the case, everyone begins to act in their own short-term interest — and the desire to avoid getting left behind — instead of in the interest of a league or a sport as a whole. Whatever happens to such a sport, the fear of missing out will be the primary driver of decision-making, and FOMO is too dangerous to be taking the wheel.