“Television rules the Nation”: Towards a breakaway European Super League or a revision of UEFA’s club competition formats?
By Jonathan Himpe International Sports Lawyer Belgium Is the idea of a European Super League back on the table now that five high-ranking club officials from the English “big five” FA Premier League have been spotted around the Dorchester Hotel in west London, accompanied with representatives from American billionaire and Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross? The latter is not only the driving force behind the International Champions Cup – a sort of pre-season tournament in which clubs can play lucrative exhibition matches in the USA, China and Australia – but is also strongly believed to want a European Super League. The concept of a European Super League can be compared with that of the existing UEFA Champions League, but with the important difference that it is a “closed” competition, in which a very selective group of clubs are guaranteed a spot, irrespective their position in the national league. Allegations regarding such a European Super League were, however, refuted by Arsenal FC, which stated in an official press release that they “are strongly opposed to any breakaway” and that “not Arsenal, nor any clubs at the meeting, are seeking changes to the Premier League and European Landscape”. Instead “discussions were primarily about the ICC [International Champions Cup] and formats of European competition that would complement the existing Premier League.” Anyway, the timing of this “top secret” meeting is, at least, remarkable now; on the one hand, clubs like Leicester, Tottenham and West Ham are in the running to conquer Champions League spots from more prestigious clubs like Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and/or Manchester United; and, on the other hand, UEFA is considering reviewing the format of its club competitions ahead of the sale of their broadcasting rights for the following three-year cycle (2018-2021) later this year. That in mind, it looks more likely that UEFA and the English “big five” (along with their overseas counterparts such as FC Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Juventus) will seek a “positive-sum” outcome, rather than that an actual breakaway would happen. The outcome could, for instance, be a third club competition reserved for Europe’s most prestigious clubs or, alternatively, a renewed Champions League with a more attractive competition formula and guaranteed spots. That way, the relevant clubs do not need to fear missing the most important international club competition (including related TV revenues) and UEFA, in turn, might use a revision of its club competitions to increase the value of its broadcasting rights (e.g. by offering more confrontations between Europe’s most prestigious clubs not only during the knock-out stage but all year round). From a legal perspective, however, one may wonder whether such a revision of European club competition formats would not be contrary to EU law. As is generally accepted, also sports clubs, associations and leagues qualify as “undertakings” (or “associations of undertakings”) to which EU competition law applies. Accordingly, one may wonder what the European Commission would think about “guaranteed spots” in the Champions League or even about a separate “closed” competition, all in favour of the most dominant players on the market and most likely resulting in an even more dominant position for them. Can one still hide behind the so-called “specificity of sport” argument, if results no longer matter to get a spot in the most important international club competition? And what about breaking the solidarity between clubs in respect of the division of UEFA’s broadcasting rights? Anyway, I cannot shake off the impression that history is repeating itself. Also in the past, UEFA managed several times to head off breakaway threats: first, by increasing the number of Champions League slots for each league to two; later, by granting no less than four slots to the English, Italian and Spanish leagues. Regardless of any limitations imposed by EU competition law, guaranteed slots to Europe’s most prestigious clubs simply appear to be a logical next step in this evolutionary process. Also, therefore, a breakaway European Super League appears to be redundant. Why would one need revolution, if there is evolution?