If there is one common thread interwoven throughout all European cultures, it must be soccer, right? Perhaps in popular theory. But the conventional wisdom now hangs in the balance as the quest for the almighty buck – that is, the supreme euro – has eroded the very fabric of soccer (no offense to Pete Rozelle, but let’s call it what it really is: football). As “European integration” becomes a buzz word for the 21st century, football will likely play an integral role in either facilitating or decelerating this cultural, political and economic merger of countries.
Football club owners have offered to help the cause by composing a framework for the future European SuperLeague, which would consist of the region’s most elite franchises. Europe has already made a transformation in showcasing athleticism, whether its unbridled fans are willing, as investors assemble to protect their shares in perhaps the most anticipated “cash cow” in sports entertainment.
However, even top football officials have their doubts. FIFA president Sepp Blatter, arguably the most powerful man in football worldwide, has stated his strong opposition to a breakaway superleague.
Regardless, sports business experts insist that any successful venture in football integration would require the solidarity of ownership policies and fan participation. True, the former condition is already growing at an explosive pace. Corporate investors have estimated the economic feasibility of supporting ESL franchises in various cities across Europe. Plans have already been proposed to compete with the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) in forming the most marketable superleague. Media Partners International, a Milan-based consulting firm, has garnered over $1.2 billion investments from JP Morgan to sustain the ESL for the first three years. Judging from the success of professional sports in the United States, there is no telling of this league’s untapped potential.
If any doubts of European football’s growth still remain, then consider the burgeoning of players’ salaries. Inter Milan recently acquired Italian striker Christian Vieri for an estimated $43 million, dwarfing the annual payroll of most professional franchises. And the issue of whether Vieri deserved more or less than, say, Michael Jordan (excluding endorsements) is irrelevant. For now, football club owners can afford these superstars because consumers are compliant to rising ticket prices.
However, ESL owners must not discount the relationship between European fans and their revered teams. Football, for countless decades in each country, has supplied a measurement of national identity. As Europeans, during the integration process, ponder the potential void of national traditions, football remains their sole source of patriotic autonomy.
If the ESL passes, then UEFA would be subject to drop one of its Cup competitions, likely the Cup Winners Cup. More importantly, UEFA stands to sacrifice two underlying principles which have sustained the organization’s existence – a commitment to divide Cup proceeds in an equitable manner for all clubs, and to televise all games free of charge to European subscribers.
The ESL would consist of Europe’s top 32 (mostly large market) teams competing in a comprehensive tournament to determine the European football champion. If the league is supervised by UEFA, it will comprise of little commercial influence – in which case, some officials suggest that a league without proper promotion or relegation will lose people’s interest in less than three years. But the traditionalists insist that UEFA’s policies, although diplomatic in nature, serve to protect the institution of football from an onslaught of manipulation by massive corporations.
Even if the ESL and its large market teams are successful in growing the sport of football to unprecedented financial and social levels, there will undoubtedly be significant ramifications to the remaining franchises. Once again, the argument of revenue disparity between small and large market teams will assume center stage. Instead of George Steinbrenner clashing with Bud Selig, it will be two others bickering – without regard to the fans, any sport’s key ingredient.
The decision of what ownership structure to emulate remains undetermined. The real challenge, at this point, is securing the support of the regional community. It is clear that the combined prowess of European cultures, not the individual national interests, will ultimately ensure the success of supranational football. Owners cannot and will not force an unnatural medium of sports entertainment to their consumers. Most business leaders in the European Union have recognized that integration comes at a cost – a lesson that football club owners are about to discover.
Despite the European Commission’s diplomatic efforts to balance competition with equal protection, the fussbudgets will continue to question the motives of not only owners but also everyone else involved.
The fruition of ESL may or may not advance European integration, but the fight to protect one of Europe’s most treasured assets – football – will surely accomplish the task.
[Originally Printed: Street & Smith’s SportsBusiness Journal, 7/24/99]