Soccer ‘Super League’ looks dead, but it’s coming in college football

Chelsea fans protest against Chelsea's decision to be included amongst the clubs attempting to form a new European Super League before the English Premier League soccer match between Chelsea and Brighton and Hove Albion outside Stamford Bridge stadium in London, Tuesday, April 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein, Pool)
Chelsea fans protest against Chelsea's decision to be included amongst the clubs attempting to form a new European Super League before the English Premier League soccer match between Chelsea and Brighton and Hove Albion outside Stamford Bridge stadium in London, Tuesday, April 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein, Pool)

Credit: Frank Augstein

Credit: Frank Augstein

The league’s elite football teams want to stage a championship that shuts out lesser competition. Proponents of the alignment want more games between top teams for more media-rights cash. Critics denounce those teams for joining together and denying the underdogs a chance to compete for titles and share in the revenue.

No, I’m not talking about the NCAA’s Power 5 football conferences and the College Football Playoff. I’m not even referring to our football. The world of association football — we call it soccer — was upended by a proposal for the top European teams to form a Super League outside of the sport’s traditional structure on the continent.

College football already has a sort of super league with the Power 5 conferences: SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12. Now imagine the top programs from those conferences announce they’ll break from the NCAA and form a new league. They say they’ll play a schedule of games against one another and share from the enormous pot of media-rights money that surely would be created by the alignment.

That’s pretty much what’s happening with association football in Europe. Or it was happening. Six English clubs said Tuesday that they were backing out of the Super League. They were set to join three clubs from Spain and three from Italy until fierce public backlash caused the English teams to reconsider.

That plan likely is dead without the six teams from the most popular league. A European soccer league that breaks from tradition is a tough sell. The hostile reaction to the Super League seems fueled by public support for the meritocratic structure of Europe’s soccer competitions.

All clubs get a chance to earn their way into bigger leagues and tournaments and, once at the top level, must prove they deserve to stay there. The proposed Super League would change the sport’s “open” system to a “closed” one in which the 12 clubs compete annually for the biggest trophy (the proposal includes five at-large spots). It would supplant the Champions League as the top competition in Europe.

I suppose its possible that the school presidents at some of the best college football locales would balk at joining a super league. I doubt it, though. There’s potentially lots of media-rights money to be made in a college football super league. And those schools likely wouldn’t face withering criticism for chasing the money and increasing the gap between the top and bottom teams.

Professional sports leagues in the U.S. attempt to engineer parity with salary caps, amateur drafts and (limited) revenue sharing among franchises. College football fans don’t have the same expectation of a level playing field. There are occasional outcries about the competitive and financial gap between the best programs and the rest. Meanwhile, the games featuring the best teams earn the biggest audiences.

If you liked the all-SEC schedule in 2020, you might love the league’s top teams playing only the best competition from any league. Well, maybe you wouldn’t like it if your favorite program weren’t included. But there’s obvious appeal in more CFP-quality matchups every weekend of the season. That’s the formula for soccer’s Super League: Better competition equals more revenue per team.

The defenders of the soccer status quo sound like college football traditionalists when they raise the alarm about change ruining the sport. The harshest criticism of the Super League came from Aleksander Ceferin, the president of European soccer’s governing body (UEFA).

“I cannot stress more strongly how everyone is united against these disgraceful, self-serving proposals, fueled by greed above all else,” Ceferin said at a news conference Monday. “This idea is a spit in the face of all football lovers. We will not allow them to take it away from us.”

That sounds like the hyperbolic, self-serving rant of a person who fears losing power and money: UEFA organizes the Champions League. But Ceferin’s message resonates with fans in England.

According to a YouGov “snap poll,” of 1,730 English fans, 79% opposed the Super League with 68% saying they strongly opposed. Disapproval isn’t limited to fans who don’t root for the six teams that were to be included in the new league: 88% of those fans oppose the move, but so do 76% of supporters of the six teams.

European fans seem to love the system that, in theory, allows any club to become champion. That doesn’t happen in practice.

The 12 teams included in the initial Super League proposal represent 40 of 65 Champions League titles and 30 runners-up. They’ve won all but three titles since the tournament was expanded in 1997-98. The gap in revenue is rapidly expanding between the top clubs and the other teams in their respective leagues.

That’s been the trend in college football for decades. It started when football schools first negotiated their own TV deals in the 1970s. It accelerated with the Bowl Championship Series era and the CFP. The rich programs get richer while winning all the trophies.

Eleven different schools won the 16 BCS titles and four others were runners-up. Three of the four programs that have won the seven CFP championships also won BCS titles (Clemson is the outlier). The CFP committee has made it clear that programs not among the Power 5 conferences won’t be selected for the playoffs no matter what they do on the field.

Those “Group of Five” programs always will get drips from the money spigot. The 65 schools in Power 5 conferences received 79 percent of the $462.4 million in revenue from the 2019 CFP. The 330 other Division I schools shared the leftovers. About 80 percent of that revenue comes from media-rights deals.

Teams that play in the CFP and other bowl games share the money they receive with their fellow conference members. At some point the best Power 5 teams will recognize they can start their own league and get a bigger piece of a pie that’s not shared as widely. About 60 percent of Power 5 schools already favor forming a football league that isn’t under the NCAA’s purview, according to a Knight Commission survey conducted last summer.

Power 5 programs want more freedom to set their own rules and fewer obligations to share revenue. They got their way when the NCAA allowed so-called cost-of-attendance scholarships. They’ll get their way again when the NCAA, its hand forced by lawmakers, adopts rules permitting athletes to profit from their name, image and likeness. A complete split between the football powers and the other NCAA schools is inevitable.

There probably won’t be a Super League now for association football in Europe. It’s only a matter of time before college football’s top teams embrace the concept.

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