How to achieve fragmented competition: European Super League will provide the ‘worst of both worlds’

Professor calls into question the economic principles of the newly proposed league backed by England’s ‘elite’ clubs

Joining a European Super League (ESL) would result in a lack of competition and lack of resource sharing, with clubs ‘harvesting’ money and risking isolating supporters.

The breakaway football competition, believed to be funded by JP Morgan, would see 20 participating clubs — including English teams Manchester City, Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur — compete in a new midweek tournament alongside their domestic leagues.

The proposals have come under widespread scrutiny, from Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the sport’s European and World governing bodies, Football League chiefs, and pundits who fear that the competition may become solely money-motivated, against the integrity of the sport, and would lead to disparities in domestic leagues. UEFA has threatened to ban participating clubs from its competitions, and to deny players the chance to play for their national team.

UEFA has threatened to ban participating clubs from its competitions, and to deny players the chance to play for their national team.

A joint statement by the 12 ESL founding members yesterday stated that the league would generate more money, which would result in a greater distribution of revenue, and would provide more long-term sustainability.

Clubs have been heavily impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, with disrupted fixtures and a lack of spectators, and the offer of ‘uncapped solidarity payments’ — which are expected to be in excess of £8.6bn — has proved a big lure for clubs, who have to pay the multi-million pound salaries of their star players.

André Spicer, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at the Business School (formerly Cass), pointed out that a partially closed league could create ‘the worst of both worlds’ — and pointed to the previous success of English Football league being based on the open competition.

"Sports leagues tend to be more competitive when they are open and high performing teams can come in while lower placed teams are relegated. The regelation system is part of the reason why English Football has been such a global success story. Closed competitions are less competitive, but members of the league are more likely to share around resources like revenues and players. The new European Super League is partially closed (if the founding clubs are permanent members) and partially open (with five new clubs being promoted each season).

"This design falls between the two models and there is a danger it will give us the worst of both worlds: lack of competition and lack of resource sharing. The result could be a few top teams who lack serious competitive challenge but are unwilling to share resources around. This could make big teams into rentiers who don’t have to try too hard and just harvest the income from their unchangeable position.”

Professor Spicer added that, to be a success, the league must create uncertainty and excitement — and pointed to successful American sports models if fans are to continue to be entertained.

“Sports leagues tend to more attractive when there is greater uncertainty of outcomes. Fans are more likely to turn up when they do not know what will happen. One way to achieve this is mixture of small round-robin tournament followed by an extended ‘post season’ knock-out competition. This happens in American sports where they have fragmented regional competitions followed by an extended post season knock out which can produce nail-biting finishes. The new league goes some way to achieving this with a fragmented competition (two groups of 10 teams) followed by a knock-out competition.”

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