Apr 20, 2021 - Sports

Billionaires' European Super League sparks outrage over inequality

Illustration of a goalie about to be hit by a giant soccer ball

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

At the heart of all sport is the concept of fair play. Now, a group of a dozen billionaires is trying to take the most popular sport on the planet and tilt it decisively in their own favor.

Why it matters: Sports is never quite as egalitarian or meritocratic as many of its practitioners believe. But the brazenness of the proposal to create a soccer Super League is unprecedented, and has angered everybody from grassroots fans to heads of state.

The big picture: There are two conceptions of fairness in a professional sports league.

  • In the U.S., a set group of teams constitutes a league, and various mechanisms exist to keep those teams competitive with each other. There's little if any prize money for winning championships; indeed, it's the lowest-ranked teams that are rewarded with early draft picks.
  • In Europe, anybody can set up a team, and they all compete to see who's best. At the end of each season, the top teams get promoted to a higher division (or get to compete in the Champions League); the bottom teams get relegated. Your fate is entirely a function of how well you play on the field.
Picture of a man holding a sign that says "Football is not a TV show"
A fan protesting outside Arsenal's Emirates Stadium on Monday. Photo: Charlotte Wilson/Offside via Getty Images

How it works: The proposed Super League takes the unfairness of the U.S. system — the fact that leagues are closed, accessible only to the chosen few — and takes away the elements that help to even things out.

  • One source tells Axios that the Super League prize pool will be the richest in sports, designed to encourage fierce competition — and spending — between teams.
  • Winning big prizes gives teams an advantage, since it allows those teams to buy up the best (and most expensive) players. An extra advantage comes from permanent membership in the Super League, which will guarantee a constant stream of TV money.
Table: Axios Visuals
Table: Axios Visuals

The backdrop: The breakaway teams are owned by a group of billionaires who have never been much loved by fans. Soccer has seen no shortage of greedy owners buying trophies, but it's never been as brazen as this.

  • In a world increasingly attuned to inequality, where sports are an equalizer and an engine of social mobility, the billionaires' timing couldn't be worse.

The bottom line: The Super League is a way for super-elite clubs to tap into lucrative revenue streams and to cement an unassailable status as the only teams who can afford to compete at the very top level.

  • That is so undemocratic on its face that the parliament in the U.K. — home to half of the 12 teams — is already looking hard for ways to prevent the league from ever seeing the light of day.
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