Headline aside, this is not about the New York Jets drafting Zach Wilson with their first pick in the NFL draft on Thursday night. Not yet anyway. The last time the woebegones thought they had a guy this solid was three years ago and he, Sam Darnold, is now cashing a paycheck in Carolina. In fact, the Jets are so inept at the draft that four of their last six number one picks are playing elsewhere. Super Flop, fitting indeed.
However, this is something even bigger. But let’s be honest American sports fan, if it doesn’t happen somewhere on the map between New York and LA, Boston and SF, Miami and San Diego or maybe trickle north from Buffalo across the border to Toronto, it’s inconsequential to us.
Thus, I shouldn’t have been surprised last week when I asked a Chicago sports fan, between shots on the golf course, about the proposed European soccer Super League and got the answer, “I heard something about it but I’m not sure what it is.” This same gent can tell me who the White Sox bullpen coach is, who plays fourth line center for the Blackhawks and who’s the holder for Bears extra-points on the rare occasion they get to attempt one. It’s the world’s most popular game with the world’s largest television market, but I might as well have been talking the pro bowling tour to Chicago sports-guy.
Same reaction Thursday morning at the gym when New York sports-guy, particularly New York Giants sports-guy, asked if I was writing this week about the draft and another Jets flameout. I told him no, “I’m doing something on the Super League.” He gave me the blank stare. We might as well have been talking pickleball.
Two weeks ago a dozen of the European soccer powerhouses announced plans to spin off from their present league structure, take (or show) their balls and form what they dubbed the Super League. Two days later, with pressure from every corner of the soccer world, the concept crumbled quicker than Derek Chauvin’s defense.
The plan was pretty simple. A dozen of the Euro soccer elite, six from the English Premier League and six others from Spain and Italy, would have combined into one tournament league, a Super League. England’s Premier League powers Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool and Tottenham planned to join with Italian teams A.C. Milan, Inter Milan and Juventus along with Spanish clubs Atletico Madrid, Barcelona and Real Madrid to be the best of the very best. They have money and they have clout. In fact, JP Morgan Chase got into the game and pledged over $4 billion of financing to help the first corner kick happen. They ultimately hoped television contracts would have made the NFL’s new deal look like a fundraiser on PBS.
The teams’ owners thought this was a good idea, but they must have taken one too many headers. They were the only ones. Players, fans and even politicians thought the plan was terrible. Supporters of teams across Europe were up in arms. Protests were rampant outside of home stadiums. Chelsea fans blocked the team bus as it tried to enter the stadium grounds for a home match. Prime Minister Boris Johnson hit the English owners with a red card and threatened legislation that would prevent the Premier League teams from joining the Super League. Ultimately, Johnson’s threat became the Super League’s tap-out.
Actually what the Super League hoped to achieve was have their 12 teams continue to play in their domestic leagues as if nothing had changed, but to no longer have the results of those leagues determine which teams would play in the following year’s Super League. Instead the automatic invite to the private club would replace qualifying for the popular but dated Champions League. Confused yet? So am I. They, the Super League teams, would have given the middle finger of a hand ball to the remaining league teams and granted themselves a permanent place in the Super League. The founders envisioned adding up to eight more teams beginning in 2022 that would guarantee more competitive matches than the staid Champions League could deliver. Broadcasting revenues would have been at unprecedented levels and they could keep all the quid for themselves. At least that’s what it looked like on the chalk board.
In our little sports corner of the world it would be akin to the NFL’s big money owners putting together their own grouping of 12 teams and leaving everyone else to fend for themselves. The blue bloods– the Jones, Mara, Rooney and Kraft families would take their Cowboys, Giants, Steelers and Patriots and reach out to their brethren in say Kansas City, Tampa Bay, Baltimore, New Orleans, Los Angeles Rams, San Francisco and Green Bay for 11 of the spots. To keep competitive balance, and because none of the remaining NFL teams are really worth a hoot, the final berth would be taken by the University of Alabama. Only these dozen teams would be entitled to play in the Super Bowl. Everybody else could try and figure out their own plan with whatever little television and sponsorship monies might be left. Only the Jets would have been excited about this. It means they get to play Detroit more often.
Looking at it from an American perspective an NFL Super League is a terrible idea. To tamper with soccer in Europe, or football as they call it, is borderline disaster. Trying to get an international consensus from the common soccer fan, I polled the Sunday Morning Coffee soccer panel of Brits: Charlie Boyd, Matt Webb, Roger McQueen and William Waddell-Dudley. All four are passionate fans of English football and all support different teams in the Premier League. None of them knew they were on the Sunday Morning Coffee soccer panel until now. In fact, a week ago I didn’t even know we had one. Because every opinion on everything needs an American point of view, I also sought input from Craig Caplan and Michael Lewis.
Boyd, Webb and Waddell-Dudley are professional colleagues of mine through the Lloyd’s of London insurance market. They also became chums after 20 straight years of doing Medjet business in London. McQueen is the biggest New York Yankees fan in the U.K. and comes over to the States annually to play old-guy baseball in Tampa where we met and were once teammates. Caplan is a neighbor and my go-to Vegas guy about anything soccer. He must know his stuff because he wears a Chelsea cap on the golf course. Impressive and intimidating. Lewis and I were high school classmates. He is now considered one of the top soccer journalists not only in the United States but the world. Formerly the soccer writer for the New York Daily News and Newsday, Mike is now editor of FrontRowSoccer.com. All had opinions on the Super League; none were favorable. Interestingly the four from England all blamed greedy American franchise owners for the idea. However, take that with a grain of Earl Grey. All four are still piqued at being beaten favorites in 1776. Time to move on, lads.
“The Super League was very poorly thought out and will always be remembered for its instant failure,” Waddell-Dudley a backer of defending Premier League champion Liverpool said. “Sadly, the owners are so far removed from reality and their concept insulted too many people.”
Boyd pulls for Chelsea and took me to my first and only Premier League game six years ago. (Sunday MorningCoffee – February 12, 2015 Top Of The League https://royberger.com/top-of-the-league/ ). That night Chelsea beat Everton 1-nill on a late goal. The game was immediately forgotten by all of the 43,000 in attendance at intimate Stamford Bridge stadium except for the American who, at the time, lived in Birmingham, Alabama. The passion and electricity were one of the highlights of his sporting life and he can’t wait to go back again. Boyd said about the Super League, “Football is about 150 years of tradition and traditional rivalries, ups and downs and trips to unglamorous matches on cold, wet nights, not about playing the same group of elite teams all the time. There’s no fun and angst in that.”
He continued, “Chelsea and Manchester City foolishly allowed themselves to be dragged in by the self-serving, money grabbing, short term owners with no interest or understanding where the value lies. The Premier League owners in this category are mostly American.”
One of the very few things fans of the Premier League agree upon, other than the Super League was a super bad idea, is the catalyst of this plan were the Americans — the Glazer family who owns Manchester United and the Tampa Bay Bucs; Red Sox and Fenway Sports Group owner John Henry who also owns Liverpool; Stan Kroenke who runs Arsenal as well as the LA Rams, Denver Nuggets and Colorado Avalanche while A.C. Milan is owned by the investment firm, Elliott Management Corporation, from New York.
“No players, managers or fans wanted this, but the owners didn’t involve them in the discussions,” said Webb, a West Ham aficionado. West Ham wasn’t included in the elite Super group. “Seems the American owners at Liverpool and Man U were leading the charge. Chelsea only signed on for the fear of missing out.”
McQueen is such a fan of the Arsenal that he wears their primarily color, red, baseball shoes to Yankees camp, something not missed very often by officials of the kangaroo court. “To be a fan for more than 50 years of Arsenal, the Super League idea really hurt me,” McQueen said. “My own personal stand, I would have given up and started following a lower division team to watch proper football, not something made for the telly.”
Lewis wrote in his FrontRowSoccer.com column the decision to organize the elite was based upon one thing – “It was greed, simple greed.” He added, ”I saw nothing but trouble with such a breakaway league, from players being banned from the World Cup to (existing) leagues being ripped apart. As quick as it was foisted on us, it appears to be gone.”
Caplan, an international soccer fan from afar and a student of the game said from under his blue hat, “This whole episode will become a business school case study on the dangers of ‘groupthink’ for decades to come. The notion of clubs being given a permanent place in the top European competition is just astonishing. The project fully deserved the immediate guillotining it received.”
The uproar from 10 Downing Street to living rooms of soccer fans around the world was loud, too loud for Super League organizers to ignore. First the Russian ownership of Chelsea abdicated followed by the other five members of the Premier League. Celebrations broke out in the U.K. akin to a World Series or Super Bowl celebration over here. It was loud, raucous and joyous. It had all the markings of an American celebration only missing the burning vehicles.
Apologies from the organizers then flowed quicker than the pour of another pint at trendy Motcombs Pub, a few Knightsbridge steps from Harrods.
JP Morgan issued a statement that said, “We clearly misjudged how this deal would be viewed by the wider football community and how it might impact them in the future. We will learn from this.” From the Arsenal club came these words to its fans: “As a result of listening to you over recent days we are withdrawing from the proposed Super League. We made a mistake, and we apologize for it.” Liverpool and Red Sox owner John Henry apologized as well. “I alone am responsible for the unnecessary negativity brought forward.” Boston fans are also waiting for an apology from Henry, this one for trading Mookie Betts to the Dodgers.
So, that’s it for now. The Super League turned out to be a super flop. However, red-shoed McQueen warns it may not be the end of the idea. “Those owners are tough, ruthless businessmen and let’s not forget they really wanted this. Tough, ruthless businessmen usually get what they want.”
As for us, American sports doesn’t need another Super League. We already have one. It’s called SEC football. Even Chicago and New York sports-guys know that.