What the European Super League Tells Us About China

Though the news is not causing much of a stir in the United States, the launching–and prompt unraveling–of the European Super League (ESL) by a dozen soccer clubs from England, Italy, and Spain is one of the biggest sports stories . . . ever.

Before we go any further, here’s a primer for our readers who don’t follow soccer. There are two types of soccer competition: international and club. International soccer is played between national teams (for example, at the World Cup). For their part, soccer clubs play in leagues, like Major League Soccer (MLS) in the United States. Players have both a club and national team (though not every player makes the cut for a national team). For example, Leo Messi’s club is FC Barcelona (Barça), but he plays for his native Argentina’s national team. His American teammate at Barça, Sergiño Dest, plays for the U.S. national team (USMNT), together with Americans who play for clubs around the world.

Clubs play in their country’s league, but also against clubs from other countries. The most famous international club competition is the UEFA Champions League (UCL), in which top teams from Europe face off every year. Winning both their national league and the Champions League in the same year is essentially the highest achievement a club can attain in a given season. The UCL is run by the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), which you can think of as European soccer’s government.

By launching the new Super League, its founding clubs are giving a massive finger to UEFA. These clubs want to do away with the UCL, instead competing against each other in a format that is more attractive to them. Getting to keep more of the profits is part of it, of course. However, the Super League founders also think there is more money to be made in the first place. Part of this would be accomplished by playing a larger number of games between themselves. Under the proposed Super League format, each team would play 18 group games (with top performers qualifying for the playoffs), pretty much all of them against powerhouses. This is in contrast to the current six games in the UCL, four of which are likely to be against noticeably inferior teams.

The announcement of the Super League has been almost universally repudiated. Understandably, UEFA doesn’t like it, and neither do the national leagues that are likely to see interest in them undermined–as it stands, one of the biggest prizes for teams competing in national leagues is the chance to quality for the Champions League, which would disappear. There is talk of suspending the “rebels” from their national leagues and banning their players from international competitions like the World Cup. Even national governments are chiming in to oppose it. Perhaps most importantly, even the fans of the elite league founders have expressed considerable hostility to the idea.

Most of this was predictable, which begs the question: why did the clubs in question even bring up the idea? Yes, there’s the potential for a lot of money, but an idea that upsets European soccer fans, sporting authorities, and even governments surely can’t be a good idea. Or can it?

Part of the answer to this question is China (and markets like it, which for these purposes includes the United States).

Chinese are huge soccer fans, as I was able to confirm during my many years living in the country and watching 足球 alongside locals. Fans around the world live for the big games, but this trend was particularly marked in China. Part of this is the time difference–you have to be selective when games typically start at 3 am! But there are other factors as well. Take my fellow Barça fans. With the exception of the Clásico against Real Madrid, most Spanish league games aren’t particularly meaningful to most Chinese (and Indian and American) Barça fans, except as the necessary hurdles to make a run at the championship (this year is a bit of an exception, with Atlético Madrid making a rare-ish title run, and as a result getting more attention than usual). By contrast, Spanish Barça fans are more likely to have an emotional connection to games against other Spanish teams. There is that old flame from Sevilla, that trip with Dad to see the away game at Valencia, that annoying kid who moved from Bilbao in sixth grade. And you can substitute the city names for Leicester and Southampton, or Cagliari and Turin.

Chinese fans turn out in droves to see Barça play Real Madrid, but barely anyone came out to see games against city rival Espanyol (back when Espanyol was in the first division; they dropped to the second tier at the end of the 2019/20 season). This even though Espanyol is owned by a Chinese company and even fields a Chinese player! It is true that games against Real Madrid are usually far more momentous, with Barça and its archrivals going down to the wire most seasons. But in the end, the biggest difference is that Espanyol lacks the star power and name recognition Madrid has–which is critical to attracting fans who lack hometown ties. Of course some Chinese fans are well aware of the undercurrents that make the rivalry a big deal for Barcelonans, but most aren’t.

The bottom line is that most Chinese soccer fans would probably like to see their teams playing more games against other big teams, and fewer against run-of-the-mill competition. And for logical reasons, their team is likely to be one of the big names, of the kind that would form part of the Super League. Whatever damages the idea causes in Europe, the teams behind the Super League surely have their sights firmly in the world beyond Europe, including of course China. As a comment to a London Times article perfectly summed it up: “I think that the problem is that they don’t consider the UK, Spanish or Italian fans as the ‘customer base.’ They are more interested in the millions of potential TV subscribers in Asia.”

This is a fast-moving story, and over the time it took to draft this post, all six English teams pulled out of Super League plans, with Inter Milan joining them as well (and other teams apparently on the verge of doing so). The project is quickly losing steam, and might be all but dead by the time this goes to press. However, this is unlikely to mean the end for the idea of an elite European league.

After the shot across its bows, UEFA may need to make changes to the game to placate the large clubs, with resulting compromises that look a lot like the planned Super League. Moreover, with all the cards on the table, relationships between the secessionists and other teams will be tense, providing further impetus for a split. It is likely just a matter of time–and the promise of markets like China will remain a main driving force. Even if the teams are hounded out of Europe by UEFA and angry fans, and have to decamp to Dubai and Doha, rest assured there will be millions tuning in for games in places like Shanghai, Mumbai, and New York. Heck, if the games can start at more decent times, viewership in China might actually go up!