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The ESL and the Myth About American Sports & League Structures

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While it’s a world away from the day-to-day activities of college sports in the United States, one of the biggest sports stories of the year so far was the attempt to create the European Super League (ESL). This was a breakaway competition that would feature the richest soccer clubs in Europe, playing their own tournament outside of the control of the governing body, UEFA. Imagine that the most successful college football teams tried to create their own tournament, excluding the less successful teams and leaving the NCAA out of it – that’s something akin to what happened.  

And it failed. The backlash from fans, other teams and the media was heated, to say the least. But within that angry rhetoric, there was a lot of criticism of the structures and culture of American sports. At times, it came off as snobbish and sanctimonious, as if elite European sports had a sense of purity not seen across the Atlantic. In the States, even the New York Times joined in, asking, “are American values ruining European football?”.  

ESL Overview 

First, a quick primer on the ESL: It was an attempt to create a new tournament, featuring six of the most successful English clubs (Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City and Manchester United), three from Spain (Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid), and three from Italy (Juventus, AC Milan and Internazionale). Three others – Paris Saint Germain, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund – did not join the breakaway attempt, but they are also considered among the elite, and the consensus is that they would have joined eventually.  

The news broke in April, but the fan fury meant it was dead in the water after a few days. The English clubs were the first to jump ship, apologizing to fans and agreeing not to attempt to do it again. The owners of Real Madrid and Juventus were not so contrite, and they still claim the ESL is necessary to ‘save’ soccer.  

So, where did the anti-American sentiment come from? Well, a number of areas. First, some of the clubs have very unpopular American owners. A case in point is Manchester United, which is owned by the Glazer Family (also owners of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers). While Tampa Bay fans might be happy with their owners after the Super Bowl LV victory in February, United fans associate the Glazers with decline of one of the world’s biggest sports brands. The biggest grievance is that the Glazer family has loaded huge amounts of debt onto the club. Fans even rioted in a protest against the owners last month.  

Baseless claim that European soccer is a meritocracy  

The other anti-American sentiment (remember, we are talking sports here, not some xenophobic reaction) is one more difficult to define. In short, there is an – erroneous – perception that European soccer is a meritocracy. The system of promotion and relegation to different leagues and the open process of qualification to the pan-European Champions League all sounds like it is based on merit – in theory, anyway.  

They point to the lack of relegation jeopardy from most American sports leagues, and the fact that you can create a franchise from nothing to instantly parachute into a top league. The Vegas Golden Knights or Inter Miami, for example, would not be allowed to compete in the top divisions of European sport. Regardless of how rich I was, if I wanted to create a soccer team to compete in the Premier League, I would have to begin with the team playing at least six divisions below the Premier League. That means it would be six years before the team could compete with the elite.  

Some of the more snobbish comments suggest that it’s boring to play against the same teams each season. American sports fans would disagree, claiming that the familiarity allows rivalries the Red River Shootout to flourish.  

But guess what? So much of this rhetoric about merit-based sports achievements in European soccer is absolute garbage. There has been a monopoly held by those elite soccer clubs for decades, and their position has only strengthened in recent years. There is no draft taking the best college sports stars to allow the weaker teams to build a new era of success. The best young players are hoovered up by the big clubs and only released if they fail. There is no salary cap. The richest clubs get the majority of the revenues, and this perpetually feeds into the system to sustain them again.  

Rich clubs are perpetually enriched by system 

From time to time, European soccer can serve up a miracle – like Leicester City winning the Premier League in 2016, or Porto winning the Champions League in 2004 – but these are increasingly rare occurrences. And, guess what happens to a team like Leicester or Porto after the surprise victory? The best players get sold to the elite clubs the next season. Nobody can gain a foothold unless you snag a rich oligarch or sheikh to spend huge amounts on transfers. 

Of course, there are many things that the average fan would change about American sports, from the major leagues to college sports to the grassroots level. It’s far from perfect. But European soccer has some of the most monstrous examples of greed, unfairness and, yes, even corruption in global sports. The charge that it was following a path of Americanization towards ruin may have raised the passions of some, but European soccer should also look in the mirror. And if looking objectively, it should not like what it sees.  

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