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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.
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

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.

Go deeper

Kendall Baker, author of Sports
Apr 19, 2021 - Sports

European soccer is at war

Liverpool celebrating its 2019 Champions League victory. Photo: Nigel Roddis/Getty Images

Europe's biggest soccer clubs have established The Super League, a new midweek tournament that would compete with — and threaten the very existence of — the Champions League.

Why it matters: This new league, set to start in 2023, "would bring about the most significant restructuring of elite European soccer since the 1950s, and could herald the largest transfer of wealth to a small set of teams in modern sports history," writes NYT's Tariq Panja.

Apr 19, 2021 - Sports

Super League players could be banned from the World Cup

Photo: Gabriel Bouys/AFP via Getty images

The Union of European Football Associations is considering banning participants of the newly formed Super League from playing in international competitions like the 2021 European Championship and the 2022 World Cup, per AP.

The big picture: The Super League, comprised of 12 of the richest clubs in Europe — with three more set to join — is about maximizing earnings.

Updated Apr 19, 2021 - Sports

Big European soccer teams announce breakaway league

Liverpool's Mohamed Salah (L) after striking the ball during the UEFA Champions League Quarter Final Second Leg match between Liverpool F.C. and Real Madrid at Anfield in Liverpool, England, last Wednesday. Photo: John Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images

12 of world soccer's biggest and richest clubs announced Sunday they've formed a breakaway European "Super League" — with clubs Manchester United, Liverpool, Barcelona Real Madrid, Juventus and A.C. Milan among those to sign up.

Why it matters: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is among those to express concern at the move — which marks a massive overhaul of the sport's structure and finances. It effectively ends the decades-old UEFA Champions League's run as the top European soccer tournament.