Super League Could Attract Super Dollars from Broadcasters, Cable

Champions League
(Image credit: Getty Images)

The Super League may not yet be a stone cold reality, but the proposal to band together 20 of the top European soccer clubs could generate billions of dollars in rights fees for football clubs across the pond, potentially attracting several major cable networks and broadcasters to compete for TV rights to the games. 

The idea of a Super League has been around for several months and for some, it was merely a negotiating tool for the top clubs to squeeze more cash or concessions from European soccer’s governing body, the UEFA. But this time around, the league has actual participants -- about 12 clubs including six of England’s most powerful clubs (Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham) and three each from Spain (Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and Barcelona) and Italy (Juventus, AC Milan and Internazionale). Super League expects to expand to at least 20 clubs, separated into two pools of 10 teams. 

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While fans have come out against the creation of the league as serving greedy ownership thumbing their collective noses at tradition, the motivation behind the Super League seems pretty simple -- money and opportunity. The Champions League has 32 teams, all which qualify based on the previous season’s results. The Super League would have 15 permanent members -- three more teams are expected to sign on shortly -- with the remaining five qualifying on merit.

Super League clubs would play mid-week games and technically would be allowed to continue to play in their domestic leagues, but would leave the Champions League, which on Monday expanded its format to 36 teams, increasing the number of guaranteed games the clubs play as well as their TV exposure. 

European soccer’s governing bodies were swift to condemn the new league.

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In a joint statement, the UEFA, the English Football Association and the Premier League, the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) and LaLiga, and the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) and Lega Serie A said they “will remain united in our efforts to stop this cynical project, a project that is founded on the self-interest of a few clubs at a time when society needs solidarity more than ever.”

The governing bodies continued that they would consider all legal and sporting measures available to them to stop the formation of the Super League, and warned that the clubs that join the upstart organization would be banned from playing in any other competition at a domestic, European or world level, and their players could be denied the opportunity to represent their national teams.

“We call on all lovers of football, supporters and politicians, to join us in fighting against such a project if it were to be announced,” the leagues said. “This persistent self-interest of a few has been going on for too long. Enough is enough.”

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But the UEFA et al, seem to be missing two key points: European soccer clubs are starving for money and an increasing number of them are owned by Americans, who don’t have the same sense of history that the leagues have.

Of the 12 original members of Super League, four teams are owned by Americans  -- Arsenal (Los Angeles Rams owner Stan Kroenke); Manchester United (Tampa Bay Buccaneers owners the Glazer family ); Liverpool (Boston Red Sox owner John Henry); and AC Milan (U.S. hedge fund Elliott Management). Those owners are used to the “closed system” prevalent in American sports where teams stay in their respective leagues technically forever. European soccer traditions like relegation, where a team can lose their spot if they have a bad year, are totally foreign concepts. And the creation of the Super League seems like an attempt to rectify that situation. 

Relegation usually means fewer fans and less money for all but the most popular teams. And coming off a pandemic year, many teams just can’t afford to lose more money. 

In a statement, Manchester City, one of the founding members of Super League, said the league’s formation “comes at a time when the global pandemic has accelerated the instability in the existing European football economic model.” 

According to a report in the Financial Times, the teams in the Super League (minus Liverpool, which did not report 2019/20 season results) lost a collective €800 million ($962 million) last year because of the pandemic.

U.S. investment bank J.P. Morgan Chase has ponied up about $4 billion to help Super League clubs close that financial gap -- each team would receive between €200 million and €400 million, according to reports. And then there is the TV money.

TV rights for the top European soccer leagues are currently about $3.3 billion per year, but rights for the Super League could be even higher. Broadcasters and cable operators have already shown their increasing appetite for European soccer. And though the creation of a new league, with marquee-name teams, would only sweeten the pot, many have come out against the new entity.

Some reports have said Super League officials have already started talks with potential broadcast partners, with the Financial Times reporting that early discussions with Amazon, Facebook, Disney and Comcast’s Sky plc. Later, Reuters said Amazon and Facebook denied they were in talks. 

Others, especially those with ties to the traditional leagues, have come out against the upstarts.

According to Variety, BT -- which holds UK broadcast rights to the Premier League, UEFA club football and National League football -- said the Super League “could have a damaging effect to the long term health of football in this country.” 

DAZN, the sports streaming service that ponied up about $3 billion for Italian soccer rights earlier this year, has denied to reports in the Italian press that it was willing to pay about $3.5 billion for TV rights to the Super League if it comes to be. 

But let’s face it, if this league becomes a reality, somebody is going to pay for it. Sports continues to be the one of the last bastions of appointment TV, and if the recent rights auction for NFL games is any indication (BTW, prices doubled) networks and increasingly streamers are willing to pay up for them. Sure, there will be some initial outrage, but networks are in the business of aggregating eyeballs. And eyeballs, and increasingly U.S. eyeballs, watch soccer.

That is evident by the surge in U.S. soccer rights deals over the past few years. In 2015, NBCUniversal paid about $1 billion for U.S. rights to the English Premier League, a deal which expires next year. ViacomCBS has the rights to all UEFA Champions League games and last month spent an estimated $200 million over three years for U.S. rights to Italy’s Serie A games. Earlier this month it snagged English-language rights to Concacaf soccer. 

ViacomCBS has been ultra-aggressive in obtaining soccer rights, fulfilling a pledge at its Feb. 24 Investors Day that it would double down on soccer.

“As we look to the future, we are making soccer a core pillar of sports exclusively available on Paramount Plus,” CBS Entertainment chief George Cheeks said at the Investor Day.

Sports consultant Lee Berke, president of LHB Media & Entertainment, said most broadcasters and cable sports channels should show an interest in Super League rights if they become available.

“I think CBS would want to get involved, NBC, ESPN Plus,” Berke said. “Soccer is a valuable commodity for streaming services in the U.S. That being said, they [Super League] just signed a piece of paper.”

And that is the key. There is still a lot that has to happen before the so-called Super League begins to actually play. And potential rights purchasers have to consider the backlash that just the mention of the Super League has caused throughout Europe already. 

Since the league was unveiled, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said the government would do everything in its power to block the creation of the new league, threatening to drop a “legislative bombshell,” according to some reports. 

French President Emmanuel Macron said the creation of the Super League “threatens the principle of solidarity of sporting merit,” according to Reuters. 

That opposition could be a factor in whether distributors line up for rights to the new league -- angering leaders of some of the most powerful countries in Europe may not help other endeavors these companies have in those areas not connected to soccer. 

“Everybody is being a little cagey,” Berke said. “You don’t want to get on the wrong side of everybody.”

Even if  the Super League becomes reality, most don’t think it will actually start playing games until 2024, so there is ample time for twists and turns to occur, Berke added. 

“Within the U.K. and Europe, this is dynamite,” he said. “I think everybody wants to see how this plays out first.”

So, it may be that some distributors that have relationships with the established leagues back off from the Super League initially, which would only open the door for other players to move in. Sports, like nature, abhors a vacuum.