Super trooper

You can tell there’s no football being played because Matthew Syed, The Times columnist by-lined as ‘sports journalist of the year’, has chosen to fill the pages of The Thunderer with that old standby of a desperate hack with nothing to say and column inches to fill.

That’s right: another piece proclaiming the inevitability of a European super league.

To be fair, Syed has an excuse: Real Madrid president Florentino Perez has put the idea into circulation again.

But pieces proclaiming the inevitability of a super league have been appearing since I edited FourFourTwo back in 1066, er 1994, and the formula is as predictable as the template for a football autobiography.

"Boys, I've got an idea..." 

First, someone like Perez is invoked to justify raising this dreary old spectre.

Second, Stefan Szymanski, a London-based academic who wrote the very good book Winners And Losers: The Business Strategy Of Football is roped into saying that the economic case for a super league has never been stronger.

(Szymanski is a very bright bloke, a favourite source of opinion for Champions. but he does lose all sense of perspective when the European super league is mentioned.)

Third, a few inflated figures, taken completely out of context, are thrown in to suggest just how many billions such a venture would create.

Fourth, the franchise system, which characterises America’s major sports, is cited as a model and approving noises are made about salary caps and the draft, where the best young players can be assigned to some of the smaller teams.

And finally, the journalist concerned, mindful of the political difficulties involved in wholeheartedly recommending such an enterprise, cries a few crocodile tears and effectively says that, much as we are all appalled by the idea, the logic is inescapable.

Syed’s piece touches most of these bases. He even throws in the prospect of the enriched owners of these super league clubs, out of a sense of noblesse oblige, subsidising ticket prices for fans out of their new wealth.

Hmmm, now how likely is that exactly?

“So long as the regulatory issues are surmounted.” These are my favourite eight words in the column.

Syed mentions “regulatory issues” as a mere aside, conveniently glossing over the fact that surmounting the regulatory issues that prevent the arrangements that make American sports profitable – a salary cap and the draft – working in Europe will be about as simple and straightforward as reuniting north and south Korea.

Despite prodding by UEFA, the European Commission has not yet recognised what Eurocrats call the “specificity” of sport.

In other words, it hasn’t yet formally said that sport is a special field of human endeavour and, as such, is immune to the rules and regulations which govern other industries.

And until it does so, salary caps and drafts will remain in breach of the pact that lies at the heart of the European Union: the Treaty of Rome which guarantees freedom of labour.

Will Europe’s heads of state agree to amend that for the convenience of Florentino Perez? Bear in mind, this process would require the unanimous consent of EU members and, in some countries, a referendum.

Even with Milan’s impresario Silvio Berlusconi running Italy, Europe’s leaders might conclude that they have more important things to be doing right now.

"Errrrr, I'll get back to you" 

Even if the European Commission recognises sport’s specificity, it is far from clear whether that would give clubs the right to cap salaries.

The European Commission, despite the flak it is regularly exposed to by the intellectual pygmies on the Daily Mail’s leader desk, has been pretty sensible in its approach to sport.

When UEFA asked it to support Platini’s attempt to ban international transfers for players under 18, the Commission effectively said: “OK, prove to us this will actually stop football hiring ‘child labour’ and we’ll consider it.”

Somehow, I can’t see it agreeing to waive the rules on salaries for the convenience of a few billionaires.

Szymanski always seems to suggest that money will solve the problem as if the European Commission is uniquely susceptible to corporate clout.

Go tell that to Microsoft who, in 2004, were fined £331 million by the Commission for abusing its market dominance.

Syed, like every super league prophet, seems to take it as read that the prospect of Europe’s big clubs meeting each other twice a week would thrill supporters, the media, sponsors and broadcasters.

I would refer him to the law of diminishing returns, a concept he seems never to have heard of but is memorably cited by the great Europhilosopher Martin Fry in the ABC song Many Happy Returns.

Surely one of the reasons that Barcelona vs Manchester United is such a compelling spectacle is that it doesn’t happen every week?

In Hollywood, the usual guideline is that sequels only make 66-75 percent of the revenue racked up by the original movie. A few break that rule. Most don’t, a fact for which we should all be thankful, as it has stopped the studios trying to foist Police Academy 75 on us.

The timing is just plain wrong. The world’s broadcasters, reeling from vanishing advertising revenues and shrinking audiences, won’t all be willing to stump up the extra billions needed to screen such a tournament.

The market for sports sponsorship is pretty lean. And can you imagine the writs that would fly if, for example, the Premier League’s 'Big Four' pulled out of it?

Sheffield United vs West Ham would, in comparison, be a tempest in a teacup.

"Good game. See you next week..." 

Syed concludes that, horrible as all this sounds, the super league clubs will probably come to some kind of compromise with UEFA and FIFA to avoid players being banned from international competitions.

I’m not quite sure what kind of compromise he has in mind, or even if he is using the word compromise in the way that you and I might understand it.

Don’t compromises usually involve two parties giving up something they want to protect something they hold dearer?

If the super league wrecked the Champions League, what would there be left for UEFA to compromise over?

So to recap then, despite what our sports journalist of the year says, a super league is not inevitable. Nor, indeed, would it necessarily be that super.

But it is a super way to fill a few column inches on a slow day. And will be for years to come.

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