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Thompson: Imagining America’s own Super League

| Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Since the news broke this past Sunday, millions around the world have lamented the obvious cash grab some of the top European soccer clubs made with their decision to join together to form a European Super League. The move — which has drawn harsh criticism from high profile world leaders and ordinary fans alike — strikes at both the traditions of the game and its current structures and governance. The formation of the league will have dire financial consequences for the domestic leagues that were historically the nursery of the world’s most popular sport and have served as its basic organizational unit ever since. The Super League would also all but destroy what has heretofore been the top club competition in the world — the UEFA Champions League — by stealing its most popular teams and undermining its overall structure, which explains why both the continental governing body and FIFA have both been so swift to propose harsh penalties for clubs that flee to this new creation.

Naturally, given the tectonic scale of this story and America’s growing but still marginal interest in European soccer, many in the United States have been searching for a comparison that would accurately describe what a shift as monumental as the formation of the Super League would look like in American sports. This search for an accurate equivalent proves to be more difficult than it might seem at first. Nearly all major professional sports have a unified league that exerts monopolistic control over the sport, and even in college athletics, the NCAA exercises complete authority over most sports’ championships and rules, so a move like what is transpiring in Europe doesn’t seem likely or even possible. After all, doesn’t it make sense that a competition that happens on a continental level will present challenges that sports limited to a single nation don’t have to face?

But there is one sport in America in which a situation truly analogous to the situation in Europe could arise: college football. When analyzed, there is no American sport more similar to European soccer on several fundamental levels. College football’s intense regionalism, abundance of small programs and lack of a single NCAA-organized championship mirror the loose structure of soccer in Europe. For example, one could easily view conferences as serving similar roles as the domestic leagues in soccer. College football also has a similarly top-heavy hierarchy to European football, as several of the top programs win an overwhelming amount of the championships and pull in much of the sport’s revenue. Lastly, both soccer in Europe and college football in America are known to inspire a fervent loyalty among fan bases, a passion that doesn’t merely rise and fall with the team’s fortunes. While the analogy is far from perfect, after all these similarities considered together, it follows that college football is the one sport in American society where a certain set of teams or conferences could unilaterally exercise as much power over the basic framework of the sport’s competition as what the major clubs just did in Europe.

If you’ve followed college football in recent decades, you know that in cases such as realignment (even though this affects all of a school’s sports, football is always the main mover), television deals and even the decisions about how college football will determine its national champion, the largest programs have consistently exerted an outsized influence. But these programs’ power almost never comes at the expense of the outright exclusion of the less popular programs and conferences. For example, even if Alabama can push Vanderbilt around within the SEC’s internal business, Vanderbilt still gets their piece of the revenue at the end of the day and gets to compete for the SEC title year after year regardless of their futility. The same logic applies on a larger scale; while the Power 5 conferences may have had more say in the design of the current playoff system (and the BCS before it), the so-called Group of 5 that completes the FBS is still wholly part of the system.

But what if the big programs decided that they didn’t need to work within the same system as the ones who don’t really compete on the same level? What if the Power 5 (plus Notre Dame, of course) decided that they would compete for the national championship among themselves without having to share their TV revenue with the Group of 5? Or even more eerily similar to the European crisis, what if the biggest programs in the sport — Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Auburn, LSU, Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Clemson, Florida State, Miami, Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, Notre Dame and USC, to name a hypothetical group — joined together to form a super conference? While there are thankfully many barriers to this happening now, the unpleasant truth is that — given the decentralized structure of the sport — this someday could be financially desirable in the same way it was to the soccer clubs that created the European Super League.

The model is already partially there in college football; the College Football Association — founded in 1977 and made up of just 63 schools — represented an attempt by the more successful programs of the time to explicitly push for their own interests, especially in regard to television money. While the group eventually came to an end — especially due to a Supreme Court decision that allowed schools to negotiate their own TV deals anyway — this episode in history demonstrates the unique fragility of the NCAA’s institutional control on college football.

Because of the fundamental structural similarities of American college football to soccer in Europe, even the most soccer-averse American that cares about college football should be deeply concerned by the creation of the European Super League. More than just an insult to millions of soccer fans in Europe and across the world, this move symbolizes the prioritization of profit and the increasing hyper-commercialization of sports over the traditions, history and deep rivalries that give athletic competition its richness.

For the reasons I’ve outlined in this piece, if you — like me — cherish college football precisely for the depth of historical emotion that it is embedded in its every snap, then you ought to empathize and be deeply concerned for soccer fans who have had their traditions ripped away from them by the creation of the Super League, regardless how much or how little you particularly care for European soccer.

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