When news started to slip out overseas on Sunday that a dozen of the biggest European soccer clubs were planning to form a breakaway super league called, in a moment of inspiration, The Super League, I happened to be watching a baseball game.
It makes for an interesting comparison. The elite clubs, in what was effectively a grand sporting heist, were trying to deposit themselves into a multi-billion-dollar closed league, where they would all play each other every year until the end of time, as a supplement to their domestic league competitions.
The Super League would free them from the trials of the UEFA Champions League, which similarly pits top European clubs against each other but casts a very large net, bringing in teams from across the continent.
Crucially, the biggest clubs have no guarantee of participation in it. Presently, three of the would-be Super Leaguers from England — Liverpool, Tottenham and Arsenal — are outside of qualification for the 2022 Champions League.
This is fundamental to the football model in Europe, which is clear even if your only reference point to the sport is Ted Lasso. It’s also something that makes even people like me, who mostly cover North American sports, look over at it with envy: Teams absolutely have to perform to be guaranteed of future growth.
Big clubs know that missing out on European tournaments comes with a significant financial penalty. Middle-sized clubs know that an excellent season can propel them into Europe and its associated riches.
The same sink-or-swim mechanism exists in the domestic leagues, where big clubs can plummet through the ranks and small outfits can claw their way up the biggest stages.
The Super League sought to insulate its members from such concerns, guaranteeing themselves a North American-style closed shop where the riches are plentiful and the risk of poor on-field performance is merely that the season ends earlier.
Which brings us back to baseball. Or, really, any of the major sports leagues on this continent.
The model here is that leagues try to legislate some degree of enforced parity through mechanisms like the amateur draft and salary caps, with the trade off for all that constraint being the guarantee that no member of the club ever gets booted out. Teams can go literal decades without ever making a playoff appearance and they get the same share of national television money as their most successful opponents.
Baseball, at this particular time, just happens to be the most glaring example of the problems with such a system.
With a few exceptions, the whole of the sport at the Major League level has cottoned on to the fact that there is plenty of money to be made by fielding a team that is decent-to-pretty-good. A team that builds around young talent and spends wisely can open up a competitive window that should last for a few seasons of playoff contention. Spending aggressively can raise that competitive ceiling, but it also potentially brings luxury-tax penalties.
The Boston Red Sox, despite winning the 2018 World Series, parted ways with outfielder Mookie Betts after the 2019 season rather than pay him the mega dollars that he would have commanded in free agency.
The Red Sox are owned by Fenway Sports Group, a conglomerate fronted by American billionaire John Henry. Among its other properties is Liverpool, which until recently — like, right around Sunday afternoon — was considered a model English club, rebuilt into a championship-winning side without any of the distasteful associations with Russian oligarchs or Middle Eastern petro states that became typical of the top end of the Premier League.
Along with Henry, wealthy Americans also own other members of the Rebel Alliance with a Galactic Empire vibe: Manchester United, Arsenal and AC Milan.
It is not hard to see why Malcolm Glazer, who has watched Manchester United slip from its dominant perch of the recent past, might see something more appealing in the North American model. He also owns the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who won all of two playoff games in 17 years and surely would have been relegated had such a thing been possible, but instead hung around long enough to sign Tom Brady in his dotage and win a Super Bowl.
Why wouldn’t he want his soccer team to take part in a similar league, where everyone shares the bountiful cake and you can blunder your way into a title every now and then?
As an added bonus, the Super League is extra exclusive, so you don’t have to worry about small-market Johnny-come-latelys becoming unexpectedly good and winning things.
Whether the Glazers and their fellow marauders had any idea of the fury they would touch off with the Super League plans is another matter entirely.
Fans, pundits, politicians, current and former players, coaches and managers — even from the Super League clubs — expressed shock and dismay at the breakaway plans.
The opposition is fascinatingly total and it’s hard not to wonder if, after the general year-long sufferings of the pandemic, a bunch of rich clubs making a nakedly selfish and greedy ploy was just a bit too much for the public to stomach.
We’re all out here wondering when we can get vaccinated and leave the house again and maybe let kids hug their grandparents, and you guys were busy scheming a way to guarantee yourselves better revenue streams even if it destroyed the competitive ethos of your sport in the process. Eff right off, fellas.
The backlash appears to have worked. Chelsea and Manchester City said on Tuesday that they were breaking away from the breakaway. Within hours the four other English clubs had followed that lead and the whole thing was in tatters.
The European model survives, and those clubs that sought to undo it are left to look at each other and wonder who is most to blame.