'I'm afraid the game is going to die' - Is the Premier League killing European football?
In a way, you've got to admire Andrea Agnelli. It takes some neck to get up on stage and criticise the way in which European football is run, while at the same time being forced to resign as Juventus president because of a criminal investigation into the club's financial affairs.
"European football needs a new system," he said in his farewell speech. "Otherwise, it risks a decrease in favour of a single dominant league which within a few years will attract all the talent of European football within its league, completely marginalising the other leagues and the others are already marginalised."
Agnelli was, of course, referring to the Premier League, and, in fairness to him, he may have had a point in relation to the potentially harmful effects of its economic might.
Just a day after Agnelli formally stood down, Deloitte published its latest Football Money League, its annual ranking of clubs by revenue, and the staggering scale of English dominance was laid bare.
For the first time ever, more than half of the clubs (11 of 20) come from the same country, while 80 percent of the Premier League's current members are represented in the top 30.
The presence of Leeds United perhaps best illustrates the power of England's top flight. They were in the Championship as recently as 2020, and haven't competed in European competition for 20 years, and yet sit 18th, above Champions League regulars like Benfica and Ajax.
How? TV rights. In particular, international TV rights, the value of which have risen by €422 million per season (an increase of 26 per cent for the 2022-23 to 2024-25 cycle when compared to the 2019-20 to 2021/22 cycle).
"The domestic market has remained fairly flat," Deloitte's Chris Wood tells GOAL. "But the Premier League is earning more than double from international TV than any of the other 'Big Five' leagues.
"What they've done over the past 30 years is cultivate a brand that really resonates across not only the domestic market, but also the international market. The other big five are struggling to replicate that.
"Consequently, during the last decade or so, the Premier League clubs have pulled away from all of their European rivals in terms of revenue."
The question now, then, is how the rest of Europe closes that gap? Or, perhaps more accurately, whether that's even possible?
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'We already have a Super League'
It's important to point out that the Premier League hasn't done anything wrong here. One could question the efficacy of its 'fit and proper person' test, given the nature of some of the changes of ownership we've seen in west London, Manchester and Newcastle during its remarkable growth since 1992, but in truth, the Premier League is only really guilty of being incredibly successful.
"The reason why the likes of (Real Madrid president) Florentino Perez and (La Liga president) Javier Tebas are sniping away is because they are jealous," Kieran Maguire, author of 'The Price of Football', tells GOAL, "and that's because we already have a Super League – it's called the Premier League.
"The Premier League has got an awful lot of things right over the years and that's manifested itself in these record levels of broadcasting revenue, which then becomes a virtuous circle. You've got more money, so you can attract more talent, which attracts more viewers, which attracts more investment in TV rights, and the circle begins again...
"I remember when English football used to cast envious eyes at Italy, because all of the top talent was going to Serie A. But it's all changed now, and that's because the Premier League took action. It went to all over those overseas markets and said, 'We've got a great product' and initially gave it away for free.
"But then it effectively became an addiction in terms of subscription broadcasting. Because a Premier League subscription is the one thing that TV viewers are not prepared to give up, even in tough times economically.
"Yes, people today like movies, they love their big TV series like Game of Thrones, but with football, perhaps because it's a live drama, it has this remarkable ability to attract and keep viewers.
"And the Premier League clubs were clever enough to do the overseas tours and invest in foreign markets in order to pick up more followers and fans, so now we have this incredible situation where the value of the international Premier League TV rights exceeds that of the domestic rights.
"You look at the comparable situation in Serie A, and nobody watches it outside of Italy. That's obviously a slight exaggeration but, relatively speaking, in comparison to the Premier League, it's true.
"Then you have Barcelona and Real Madrid, who have become victims of their own greed in that they used to sell their own TV rights individually, which meant more money for them, but less money for their rivals. As a result, Spanish football became uncompetitive outside of Barca and Real. They became the only show in town as far as the international market was concerned. Millions tuned in for the Clasico but not really any other games outside of Barca and Madrid."
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Perez would doubtless agree. He has repeatedly lamented the fact that Madrid do not get a chance to play the likes of Bayern Munich, Chelsea and AC Milan on a regular basis.
"You have to remember that Madrid are a multi-sports club," Spanish football writer and commentator Andy West tells GOAL, "and they have a basketball team who play in the Euro League, which is very similar to the format of the proposed Super League that Perez has been pushing.
"They're playing in these big European markets every week while at the same time competing in a domestic competition. So, he's got a model in front of him that works for basketball and he's asking himself, 'Why don't we have this for football?'
"Because, remember, Madrid and Barcelona are effectively fan-owned clubs because of their ownership models. Of course, they can have external investment, but not to the level of a petro-dollar club, where there is no budgetary constraint.
"Then, there's the fact that La Liga's version of financial fair play is actually quite strict, and harshly enforced, because it wants to run a sustainable competition. So, Madrid and Barca have to come up with innovations, such as Laporta's levers, just to be able to compete in the transfer market.
"So, there are both sporting and financial factors at play here. Perez wants Madrid to be competing on and off the field with Europe's biggest clubs.
"The problem, though, is obviously the fact that there is a lot of opposition to the Super League among the other Liga clubs and La Liga itself, with their resistance led by Javier Tebas. He's probably the most outspoken critic of the Super League plans, and you can totally see why. The two biggest clubs focusing their attention and resources on a Super League, of course it would damage the domestic competition."
La Liga is starting to struggle as it is. It remains to be seen if their poor results in this season's Champions League represents the start of a worrying trend from a sporting perspective (Madrid are the only Spanish side through to the last 16).
However, La Liga certainly appears to have little chance of closing the gap to the Premier League in terms of TV money. The loss of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi means that even the Clasico has lost some of its lustre.
However, there's also a cultural element that West says should be considered, at least in terms of the value of domestic rights.
"People in Spain don't watch as much TV as people in the UK, so they don't pay as much for TV subscriptions," he explains. "In the UK, Sky has around 12 million subscribers. In Spain, Movistar, which has the rights to La Liga, has about 3 million.
"So, obviously, La Liga is going to make less money from domestic TV deals too because the rights are less valuable. That's just the way it is. That's not a criticism of La Liga or the Premier League. People in the UK watch more TV – it's as simple as that, cultural differences like that matter."
The youth of today
'Cultural differences' are certainly significant. Both Agnelli and Perez have repeatedly claimed that kids are losing interest in football; that the game must change, or at least adapt, in order to retain the attention of the younger generation.
"Something needs to be done because today's youth, those between 14 and 24 years of age, are abandoning football because they see it as being boring compared to the other forms of entertainment which they prefer," Tebas told AS.
Marco Bellinazzo, author of 'The new football wars', agrees that there is a problem of perception, and says the only solution involves "putting the fans back at the centre of the world of football".
"There are ways of doing this, as we're seeing in England with the reintroduction of safe-standing sections of the stadium," he argues.
"There are also IT tools, such as fan tokens – not cryptocurrencies – that allow fans to make their voices heard in terms of shaping the identity of their club. But, basically, it needs to be acknowledged and accepted that football cannot be reduced to pure entertainment.
"Football has something more to it, thanks to the passion of the fans, which must be preserved and promoted if we don't want it to become a mere element of entertainment on a par with TV series.
"There is a very real risk of alienating young people, all the new fans who, the numbers tell us, are increasingly bored by the classic format and presentation of football. So, if we don't recover this emotional element of identity and passion among young fans, I'm afraid the game will die – or at least the sentimental, popular version of football that we experienced from the 80s right up until the 2000s."
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Engagement & innovation
Football certainly hasn't suddenly been stripped of its ability to capture the attention of the entire world. Far from it.
Social media went wild for the World Cup final. Ryan Reynolds called the game "a gorgeous, evil curse", Serena Williams joked that she was on the verge of having "a heart attack", while LeBron James simply saluted 'The GOAT', Lionel Messi.
The love of 'The Beautiful Game', then, has not been lost. But it's clear that the likes of Serie A and La Liga are in danger of being completely overshadowed by the commercial colossus that is the Premier League.
"Given where we are in terms of TV deal cycles, we would be very surprised to see any kind of material gain that would allow the other four members of the 'Big Five' to close the gap to the Premier League in the short-to-medium term future," Wood admits.
"European football, commercial income and matchday revenue remain significant, but the biggest economic driver in football today is TV money. If you've got a very successful broadcasting deal, with your product being shown in almost 190 countries worldwide, well, then, your product becomes quite an attractive commercial proposition as well, which is why companies are so keen to sponsor Premier League clubs, to avail of that global exposure.
"So, it's not that these other leagues aren't generating revenue, it's just that the Premier League is making far more, and that's why it has pulled away.
"What's more, looking at the upcoming Champions League revamp, there is a realistic chance that five English teams will play in the competition most seasons, and that will drive greater shares of that money pot towards the Premier League, which, in turn, would lead to great polarisation.
"So, to close the gap, the other European leagues need to draw more attention from the international audience to their own competitions. Now, that might mean engaging with overseas fans in a slightly different way, being more innovative in terms of what we've seen in the past, but it also means retaining great players that resonate with their audience.
"If you look at Ligue 1, there is a smattering of superstars, but all at one club. Beyond that, there are not many names that resonate with a broad international audience.
"I think it's somewhat similar in Serie A, so it's about developing and retaining star players. If you can do that, you can start to build profiles, and can build stories and narratives around them, and that should help to attract a bigger audience overseas."
Easier said than done, though. If the last couple of transfer windows have taught us anything, it's that the Premier League clubs are operating on a completely different financial plain to their continental counterparts.
Indeed, the EPL spent almost exactly as much as the other four leagues combined last summer (€2.23bn to 2.25bn). They've also just broken the previous record (£430m) for gross spend during a winter window
Agnelli is right, then, that there is a very obvious risk here of the Premier League hoovering up all of the best talent from around Europe. If that process has not already begun...
"The idea of the Bundesliga becoming a feeder league has probably been a topic of debate since Granit Xhaka went to Arsenal in 2016," says German football expert Abel Meszaros.
"What's interesting now, though, is that it's no longer just the top English clubs buying players from Germany, it's the likes of Brentford and Nottingham Forest.
"I think the closure of stadiums caused by Covid-19 hit the Bundesliga harder than most, given the importance of matchday revenue. So, while they're still coming to terms with those huge losses, the English clubs have clearly recovered already, and that creates another problem in terms of transfers.
"I think what we're seeing is that the window of opportunity that Bundesliga clubs have to sign players has closed considerably. It's not that they aren't still capable of finding them, it's that they have less time to sign them before they're picked up mid-table or bottom-half Premier League teams. Or, even if they do manage to pick up these players, they can't hold on to them very long at all for the same financial reasons.
"It's also significant that it's not just players that are going to England, it's a lot of front-office talent: coaches, scouts, directors.
"So, the Bundesliga is in a difficult position. Even the likes of Dortmund are now competing with Leeds rather than Arsenal for players. Even RB Leipzig have budgetary constraints, and a business model that is more geared towards making money on talents that they've developed.
"So, the big Bundesliga clubs, Bayern aside, have arguably already become feeder clubs."
'A Super League was the only solution'
Will Serie A, and maybe even La Liga, soon follow suit? It seems inevitable, given the current state of affairs.
"From a fan's perspective, it's hard to see a happy ending or any kind of economic equality, because you'd need every stakeholder to come together, and work together, for the greater good," West says.
"It would take the Premier League acknowledging that their dominance isn't healthy for European football in general. It would take the other leagues acknowledging that the Premier League hasn't done anything wrong while also sharing their wealth with their own leagues in order to improve overall competition. And it would take UEFA trying to really and truly look after every club in every league in Europe, rather than just trying to enrich their own organisation, and their own competitions.
"It would take everyone to compromise, essentially, and that just doesn't look like happening at the moment. The far more likely outcome is that the courts will decide where European football goes from here."
Indeed, despite numerous setbacks, those behind the ESL are adamant that the project is not dead. "It is only on standby," as Perez memorably said.
In his parting press conference, meanwhile, Agnelli said that he retains hope that the European Court of Justice's Grand Chamber, which is set to rule on the matter next spring, "recognises professional sport as an industry", and that Madrid, Barca and Juve will eventually be rewarded for their "courage" in standing up to "threats from UEFA".
It certainly seems unlikely the rebels will back down. They're desperate right now, and see no other possible solution to their problem.
Bellinazzo agrees, arguing that the Premier League is a "locomotive which is travelling at a different speed to everyone else". There is, in his opinion, no chance of this runaway train being caught, "at least not under the current Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules, which allow 70% of revenue to be spent on salaries, squads and other areas.
"It basically means that those clubs with €500m of revenue are able to put together far stronger squads than those making €100m. So, contrary to what it says it wants to do, UEFA has actually created a league-opoly with these regulations containing about 10 or 11 clubs, including the big English clubs, Bayern and PSG, who just win more and more games, and get richer and richer as a result.
"In that purely financial context, then, the only solution to keeping up with the Premier League was the Super League, which could have increased European football revenues. In my opinion, UEFA should have supported this type of solution as long as there was a more equitable distribution of the teams' revenues. Instead, we will have a European football scene that becomes poorer and poorer, relatively speaking.
"Indeed, we are going in the opposite direction to American sports, which have become not only more interesting but also richer. When new TV rights for NFL and the NBA come into play, they will have an annual turnover of €50 billion, and yet European football as a whole makes €30bn, despite having a much larger fan base across the world. So, that tells you that for football, as an industry, something isn't working."
Change is inevitable
Again, that's hardly the Premier League's fault. Its success has merely highlighted some of the failings of others. As has been well documented, Serie A, for example, has been dreadfully run and marketed for years.
Economic imbalance is a major problem for the game, though, and not just between and within Europe's 'Big Five' leagues. Let's not forget that countless other clubs and competitions are being left behind by the uneven distribution of wealth from the top of the football pyramid.
It is telling, then, that a new report in L'Equipe claims that the Super League organisers are now considering opening it up to clubs from other countries, which would obviously be a shrewd move in terms of reviving the project with support from outside the 'Big Five' leagues.
Perez and Agnelli also continue to insist that the new format would mean more money for everyone, and not just the participants. But given they have proven themselves to be motivated by personal interest, it's hard to treat such claims with anything but scepticism.
Something will be done, though, there's no doubt about that, because if history has taught us anything, it's that money and greed are powerful agents of change. It's no coincidence that both the Premier League and Champions League came into being at the same time. Furthermore,whatever one thinks about Agnelli, he is right about at least one thing: European football is in need of reform.
As West says, "The status quo only suits the Premier League. They're happy with the way things are. And that's understandable. But the other clubs and leagues are not happy. They need change and they'll do whatever they can legally to make it happen."