The bombshell that 12 top European clubs have joined a breakaway “super league”, presented as a fait accompli at 11.30pm on Sunday, is the culmination of some big clubs’ manoeuvrings for financial advantage over 25 years. But whereas Uefa bought off previous breakaway threats by expanding the Champions League and delivering more of its revenues to the top clubs – a time-served formula the Uefa president, Aleksander Ceferin, still believed would work until the weekend – reality has ruthlessly bitten this time.
It is telling on several levels that six Premier League clubs – half the clubs so far – have signed up to such a disruptive move. English football is seen by many around Europe to have laid the money-driven conditions for it, in the breakaway to form the Premier League in 1992, the relentless commercialisation since, and the openness to takeovers by investors from anywhere.
The US ownerships of Liverpool and Manchester United have been instrumental in positioning themselves for maximum advantage from changes to European competition, as they were in the thwarted “Project Big Picture” plans to reshape the English game. But the pace of change – from breakaway plans first publicly mentioned as recently as October, to United, Liverpool and the four other Premier League clubs signing up – has been furiously accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic and the multimillion-pound losses it has caused. The English clubs are all still in the mega-rich elite, but each has its own particular ownership, motivation and financial situation that has led it to join, along with the obvious resolve for any waverers, not to be left behind.
The revelation that United have been prominently involved in a widely reviled breakaway project has revived the antagonism to the Glazer family that has boiled, simmered and never really cooled down since their 2005 takeover. It remains astonishing to many United supporters, who led well-informed and organised campaigns against it, that the Glazers were allowed to buy one of England’s greatest sporting institutions with leveraged financial structuring that loaded £525m debts on the club.
Ed Woodward, now United’s executive vice-chairman, was a banker at JP Morgan who designed the takeover, including a £275m tranche loaned at very high interest. As recently as December, Woodward was clearly indicating he was working with Uefa as a member of the European Club Association board rather than pursuing a super league. But now United have signed up to another financially driven venture being developed by JP Morgan, his former place of work.
The Premier League champions of last season have not yet published accounts revealing their losses from the pandemic caused by rebates to broadcasters and the absence of supporters, but John Henry and his Boston-based FSG ownership group have had a piercing focus on them. Henry was understood to be the principal author of the Project Big Picture plans to give the big six clubs control of the Premier League’s commercial direction – and share 25% of TV revenues with the EFL, a proposal which appears to have been lost. Since the rejection of the plans, Henry has turned his attention more fully to the European manoeuvres, and no doubt been persuaded by the glittering revenues JP Morgan is projecting it will deliver to the chosen few clubs.
Owned by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan of the Abu Dhabi ruling family, who has invested approximately £1.3bn on super-fuelling City since his 2008 takeover, City, for a short time on Sunday, appeared to be holding back from the breakaway before confirming they had signed up. The supply of Abu Dhabi’s oil wealth to the club formerly described patronisingly by Sir Alex Ferguson as United’s “noisy neighbours”, puts City in a different position from the clubs whose US owners do not invest capital. But this month City revealed a £126m loss for the year to 30 June 2020 – so covering only the first three and a half months of the pandemic – and once the momentum of their top-six rivals propelled them to a breakaway, City were not going to miss out.
Owned for 10 years without conspicuous success by the US magnate and sports franchise owner Stan Kroenke, Arsenal announced a pre-tax loss of £35m for the year to 31 May 2020, which the club said was “directly attributable to Covid-19”. Mikel Arteta’s team, a patchy, promising work in progress, are ninth in the Premier League, so illustrating most blatantly why the “big six” breakaway, with no relegation, has been greeted with such indignation. Kroenke’s ownership style is not to invest capital in the club – his group charged the club a £3m annual consultancy fee for some years. With on- and off-field results now significantly below those of their Champions League-competing rivals, participation in a Super League represents a very big promotion for Arsenal.
Owned by the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, who has invested more than £1.1bn since his takeover in 2003 from the former owner, Ken Bates. He appeared for a while to be less engaged with the club after abandoning his application for a UK visa in 2018 and taking up residence in Israel. Reacting to the delay of the British authorities in approving his visa, he cancelled the advanced, expensively-developed plans for a new 60,000-seat stadium, leaving Chelsea in the confines of Stamford Bridge. But Chelsea spent more than £200m last summer on rising European stars Hakim Ziyech, Timo Werner, Kai Havertz, and Ben Chilwell from Leicester, and Abramovich’s ambition seems to have sharpened again. The chairman, Bruce Buck, was involved in the Project Big Picture discussions but did not take as much of a lead as Liverpool and United.
Spurs, now seventh in the Premier League and with José Mourinho freshly sacked, will also have been glad to be still considered a big-six club worthy of entry to the super league. However outrageous to football heritage and sentiment, a league with no relegation will offer some certainty very welcome to the owner, the Bahamas-based currency trader Joe Lewis, and the chairman, Daniel Levy.
Announcing a loss of £64m for the year to 30 June 2020, following a £69m profit in 2018-19, Levy said the loss of revenues because of the pandemic “could not have come at a worse time”. Spurs spent £1.2bn building their new stadium which has been empty for a year, and have net debt of £605m as a result, far larger than the other clubs.