Who Pays For the Super League?

Who Pays For the Super League?

Unless you’ve been asleep, you will know that, at time of writing, 12 named football clubs have agreed to join something called the European Super League. Another three teams are as yet unnamed.

Obviously the whole thing is a sporting farrago, which guarantees the founder members permanent places in this league regardless of how well they’re doing domestically. And I’m ashamed that my own club, Arsenal, is one of the six English clubs involved.

So far, the fan feedback has been viscerally negative. And pundits within the game are basically in complete agreement. The idea that we end up with some kind of closed shop – à la the NFL – is fundamentally not what football is about.

But I want to dig into how this would all work financially. As well as being guaranteed membership of the league, each of the clubs is being offered something of a payday, getting 350 million euros on signing. JP Morgan is said to have raised the money for this, but beyond that initial €4.2b for the 12 named clubs at the start, you would imagine that clubs will be expecting revenues at least as good as they’re currently getting from UEFA for the Champions’ League. A winning team would expect upwards of €100m in a season.

Now of course, if you’re Arsenal, who are not in the Champions’ League this season, then whatever you’re going to get is going to be better than now. But if you’re Chelsea or Man City – both through to the semi-finals this season, and often there or thereabouts along with many other clubs named in this list, then the finances of the new league must make sense.

This all really means that the owners of the European Super League are banking on achieving significantly greater revenues for broadcast rights than current deals allow for.

This is puzzling.

Step back a moment and look at major sports leagues around the world in their core markets. Essentially all of them sell their rights to TV (or streaming) broadcasting partners for fixed amounts upfront.

In the US, the NFL has just done a ten year $110b deal with a range of partners that include all the major US broadcast networks and Amazon. That cash is guaranteed. Broadcasters like NBC or Fox may, or may not, make money on the deal – selling valuable advertising space targeting hard-to-reach men – but audiences are declining and even now, some games may essentially become “loss leaders.” The changes in television over the last ten years have been vast – who can really say if a commercially funded broadcast TV network’s business model will still work in the next ten years?

Nonetheless, most of that $110b is coming from those broadcast networks, with Amazon only really accounting for about $10b of it.

Notably, what the NFL has not done is set-up its own Netflix-style sports TV business. They could have just made an app, and charged viewers directly. The reason that they haven’t, and the reason that no major sports body has done this, is because they know that fans won’t actually pay that amount directly.

Yes – in the UK you may pay Sky or BT handsomely for football coverage, but that’s part of a wider package. It might include your broadband, or the very box you use for most of your TV viewing. You get more than just the Premier League or Champions League. The cost of those rights is somewhat hidden and amortised with other costs and benefits to you as a viewer. Importantly, sports TV rights in this instance are a gamble that is moved over to the broadcasters. What is Sky without the Premier League? Unthinkable.

Returning to the European Super League. It will need to find broadcast partners and these will probably come from:

a) Existing sports broadcasters, like Sky.

b) New entrants who are trying to break in, like DAZN.

c) Digital platforms that may have not previously shown a great deal of interest in sport, like Facebook.

d) Going direct to consumers.

All of those have problems.

Existing broadcasters may find this hard to square away. If UEFA, the Premier League and others follow through with a threat to kick out of their domestic leagues any clubs that join this league then they instantly devalue their own product. But they also perhaps win public sentiment. And that could be powerful. If a major broadcaster, like Sky, were to buy the rights, what would the backlash be like?

Already we’ve seen major Sky Sports football pundits and presenters vehemently argue against this league. What would happen if their own employer buys the rights?

And would fans of non “big six” clubs ever feel the need to put their hand in their pocket to which this seasons’ Chelsea v Real Madrid games? Or will they hate the league so much that they will actually cancel their subscriptions to any offerings that come from these broadcasters?

If there was a massive fan-led backlash to “cancel” the broadcaster who paid for the rights, that could hurt shareholder value in that broadcaster.

A new player like DAZN might chance their arm. What have they got to lose? Well a lot of money.

TV sports rights have basically plateaued in Europe recently, with rights having to be humiliatingly re-auctioned in France and Italy are failures of previous rights holders. So digging deep could be a very expensive gamble that might bring down a nascent broadcaster entirely. And in the UK, remember back to the ITV Digital/ONdigital farago surrounding the massive rights deal they did with the Football League before backing out it entirely. Clubs were left high and dry.

Obviously a new digital entrant like Facebook or Amazon might have untold billions and could easily buy the rights. But the fan reaction might be worrying those businesses. What’s more, broadcasters had already been hoping that these groups might be a funnel of money, but that hasn’t proved to be the case. Yes – Amazon has bought some NFL rights this time around, but it’s not taken one of the big packages. Similarly, in the UK it has a very limited amount of Premier League fixtures that it bought for a relative bargain. These guys aren’t fools – they’re not going to overpay the market worth.

That leaves going direct to consumers. Set up an app, and get viewers to pay direct. You’ve no idea how many will, so you’re going to take a gamble on what your revenues actually will be. If your service is shoddy, or fans decide they don’t want to support the league, then you may underperform against what you expected to earn. Where then?

Perhaps a backer like JP Morgan might give them some financial security, but that’s not a longterm plan, and the price to consumers will not necessarily be cheap. You’ve also got a lot of irate fans of clubs who aren’t in the league, and are unlikely to get in. Will they pay?

It all feels quite financially challenging.

There’s a whole world out there of course. Perhaps fans in other countries won’t be as upset. After all, US sport is basically run this way. There’s no promotion or relegation in the NFL, NBA or MLB. But just as domestic broadcast rights have levelled off, I would suggest that international rights are not going to be as valuable as some might hope. The Premier League has taken a big cut in rights in China for example. There isn’t necessarily an international gravy train just waiting there.

The clear thing here is that fans have a lot of power. Games played in empty stadia post-pandemic won’t look good. Fans vociferously condemning the clubs’ owners will not sound great. Fans boycotting those who have allowed this to happen could have economic impact on everyone from broadcasters to sponsors.

How this plays out will be interesting, but disheartening.

Will I give up my Arsenal Silver Membership? Perhaps. I’ve already vowed not to watch the 2022 World Cup in Qatar because of human rights violations – and the untold misery and deaths that the event has caused – 6,500 and rising.

And that’s before we get to any consequences that players might feel – from being excluded from domestic leagues to perhaps even representing their countries.

What a mess.

One further thought: cartels involve companies acting together to restrict competition in a way that affects trade, and they’re both civil and criminal offences in the UK. I am not a lawyer, but could this European Super League be considered a cartel?