24 Apr 2021

ESL: A Legal Perspective and Insights on the Football League that May Never Start

Introductory remarks

There are many reasons why football is one of the world’s most successful and popular sports, and that Europe is its home.  As Rohan Roy said in his poem, football is “the most beautiful game”.  Although football has changed over the years, which was inevitable, it kept receiving support from its fans. Historically, adjustments to “the most important of the least important things” have been announced and introduced gradually, so that the core principles of football would survive.

It is obvious that the fans and supporters were and always will be the reason for football’s worldwide success.  This must never change because without the fans, it will not be the same. Furthermore, as long as fans are connected to football, “the most beautiful game” can overcome any obstacles.  However, the world of football was thrown into controversy this week by an announcement from 12 of Europe’s leading clubs on plans to establish a new midweek competition, the so-called European Super League (“ESL”).

What happened?

The top European clubs have mutually agreed to set up a new international club competition – ESL, therefore totally shoving aside the Champions League, founded and organized by the Union of European Football Associations (“UEFA”).  The proposal for establishing the ESL means the clubs are forming their own competition to rival the Champions League.  Unlike the Champions League, the ESL was envisaged to include permanent membership, with only 5 of its 20 positions open to qualification from other teams.

To put it in colloquial terms, this came as a complete blow to UEFA and practically meant the withdrawal of major European football clubs from UEFA’s competitions. The move has widely been condemned by sports fans, former and current football players as well as political leaders.

Which clubs are involved?

A total of 12 European top-class football clubs announced that they were establishing a new competition.  The Premier League’s big-six clubs – Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea, and Tottenham Hotspur – were all involved.  Together with English clubs, three clubs from the Italian national league (Serie A) – Inter Milan, AC Milan, and Juventus, as well as three Spanish La Liga giants – Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, and Barcelona, joined as “Founding Clubs”. It was also planned for a further three clubs to join ahead of the inaugural season, which, according to the (founding) clubs, is intended to commence “as soon as practicable”.

The financial aspect of the deal

Despite disapproval from fans, European politicians and football experts, the clubs involved are pushing ahead with a project they believe will raise upwards of EUR 4 billion a season from global broadcasting and sponsorship rights.  That amount is roughly double that of the Champions League, the continent’s top club contest so far, which the ESL was designed to supersede.

According to those familiar with the plans, the 15 “founding clubs” of the ESL would share 32.5 percent of these commercial revenues.  A further 32.5 percent would be distributed between all 20 participating teams, including the five sides invited or qualified to play in the competition each year.  The next 20 percent of revenues would be allocated according to “merit” or it would be dependent on performance in the competition. The final 15 percent would be shared based on broadcast audience size.

Well-versed journalists found that such a distribution model would allow the winner to receive just 1.5 times more than the lowest ranking clubs.  However, all participating clubs would also be allowed to retain all revenues from club sponsorship deals.  The calculation is clear. Profit is the main reason for establishing a competition outside the UEFA, which takes a large part of the cake from the clubs for itself.  The attempt to overhaul Europe’s top football league appears to be based on the principle that top clubs should pursue commercial benefits just like other businesses.

Effect on EU single market and competition

Sports federations such as FIFA and UEFA are required to regulate the game and to deal with the crucial business of selling TV rights and distributing the income among football clubs and national associations.   In that sense, the role of sports federations is to safeguard the integrity, health, safety and proper functioning of sport.  Therefore, the possible establishment of ESL could have a significant impact on EU competition rules.  Namely, two questions could be asked following this issue.  Firstly, could UEFA’s vindictive action against ESL members breach competition law?  Secondly, could ESL amount to a cartel?

 Initially, UEFA said that it would consider all available measures, at all levels, both judicial and statutory to prevent the ESL from taking place. “Football is based on open competition and sporting merit, it cannot be any other way” stated UEFA.  So far, the governing body of European football threatened to disqualify any participating club from the Champions League and to ban all ESL players from national and international tournaments.  Proponents of ESL claim that such action unduly impedes a competing event considering the benefits of having a rival event to the UEFA Champions League, in terms of competition for TV rights and choice for fans.

On the other hand, the concept of the ESL with 15 permanent membership and only five rotating positions could look actively anti-competitive, a business practice designed to reduce competition.   In other words, ESL may break EU competition rules because it’s creating a protected market that restricts others from entering, thus limiting competition.  In the ESL,  football clubs from Eastern Europe would have a very limited chance to play against clubs such as Real Madrid or Barcelona unlike in the UEFA Champions League.  Is that fair and in the spirit of football?

What does the European Commission say?

The European Commission’s (“Commission”) general approach is that, “…restrictive sporting rules are compatible with European competition law if they pursue a legitimate objective and if the restrictions that they create are inherent and proportionate to reaching this objective.”

According to news circulating online, the Commission is not willing to use its powers to settle the battle between UEFA and ESL.  In response to questions about the establishment of ESL, the Commission has pointed out that national courts and arbitration bodies are the best fora for disputes in sport, and that it wouldn’t automatically start an antitrust probe.

However, in the case of the establishment of the ESL, the said stance of the Commission would not prevent interested parties from filing complaints to the Commission and other national competition authorities.

In that sense, one may recall the case of the International Skating Union’s (“ISU”) Eligibility Rules.  At the time, skaters participating in events that were not authorized by the ISU faced being suspended or receiving a lifetime ban from any ISU organized competition.  In the said case, the Commission found that the ISU prevented competing organizers from setting up alternative sporting events which is incompatible with competition rules. The General Court upheld the decision and made clear that, while sporting federations can implement a system for authorizing competing events, the rules must not unduly impede those events.

Conducting a case against the ISU was easier for the Commission than it would be to open an investigation on UEFA or European top-class football clubs.  However, it will be interesting to see the Commission’s reaction if it receives complaints concerning this issue.

The short history of ESL

Perhaps unrelated to UEFA’s pressure, yet within 72 hours of the announcement that the ESL would take place, the founding clubs started to withdraw from the league.

Manchester United announced on its website: “We have listened carefully to the reaction from our fans, the UK government and other key stakeholders. We remain committed to working with others across the football community to come up with sustainable solutions to the long-term challenges facing the game.” The question which arises relates to the withdrawal procedure. Manchester City confirmed that it has formally enacted the procedures to withdraw from the group developing plans for the ESL.  Pretty much the same announcement can be found on Tottenham’s website.  Also, Chelsea reported that their continued participation in these plans “would not be in the best interests of the Club, our supporters or the wider football community.”  Another British football giant – Liverpool stated that their involvement in proposed plans to form the ESL has been discontinued, as the club has received representations from various key stakeholders.  Arsenal published an open letter to their fans saying that they were withdrawing from the proposed ESL.

All six Premier League teams involved in the ESL have now withdrawn from the competition.  Outside Britain – the “cradle of football”, by the time this article was finished, Inter Milan confirmed that it is no longer part of the ESL project, as well as Atletico Madrid who communicated to the ESL its decision not to finally formalize its adhesion to the project. Milan stated that will continue to work hard to deliver a “sustainable model for football”.  In the next few days, it is expected that the rest of the involved clubs will announce their retreatment from the ESL which is now facing total failure.