Premier League's exorbitant transfer spending is making a European Super League necessary

CHINA - 2021/04/23: In this photo illustration the top level of the English football league Premier League logo seen displayed on a smartphone with USD (United States dollar) currency in the background. (Photo Illustration by Budrul Chukrut/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
The English Premier League is awash in money. (Photo Illustration by Budrul Chukrut/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images) (SOPA Images via Getty Images)

Nottingham Forest had played precisely zero 21st-century Premier League games when it ventured into the transfer market this summer. It occupied a position in soccer’s hierarchy that traditionally attracted second-division stars and middling EPL veterans. Perhaps its newly promoted predecessors might have also looked abroad to bolster squads, but only sparingly.

Forest, though, arrived on the scene in a new era — and foretells a new world.

Among the 20-plus players it signed this summer, it recruited a Champions League midfielder; and defenders from Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid; and the top-scorer from a Bundesliga club that qualified for the Europa League. It outspent Barcelona, Real Madrid, PSG and Juventus. And it wasn’t alone; 10 of the summer window’s top 13 spenders hailed from England.

In total, Premier League clubs spent $2.46 billion on players this summer, almost as much as their peers in Spain's La Liga, Italy's Serie A, Germany's Bundesliga and France's Ligue 1 combined.

Their net spend was $1.49 billion, per Transfermarkt data. La Liga’s, the next highest, was $57.7 million.

Their outlays were unprecedented, but unsurprising. They represented an evolution in European soccer’s power dynamics that has become self-perpetuating. The Premier League makes gobs of money; its clubs woo players with that money; the players create an entertaining product, which the Premier League sells to broadcasters and sponsors for lucrative sums, which filter down to the clubs, which can then woo even greater players.

The cycle, catalyzed by gigantic TV deals beginning last decade, has become unbreakable, and has left continental Europe struggling to keep pace. The likes of Real Madrid and Juventus increasingly see only two options. They either must push for larger revenue shares from their respective leagues — exacerbating inequality domestically and weakening those leagues — or they must disrupt the entire structure of European soccer.

Which, of course, is exactly what they tried to do last year. Madrid and Juve were the chief architects of the Super League. It failed because its English members, who have no need to disrupt anything, caved under immense public pressure.

But the plot still exists. (So does the company behind it.) Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus continue to champion and defend it. The Independent, a British newspaper, reported in March that Madrid president Florentino Perez was “newly bullish about his European Super League.”

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Its future now hinges on a court case. But whatever the outcome, a modified version of it is necessary. And that modified version is being shaped by the Premier League’s financial supremacy. The EPL, in many ways, has already become a Super League — or, at least, is en route to becoming one. And Europe will, someday, have to create a challenger.

Growing gap between EPL and rest

That “someday” is perhaps not today. At the very top of European soccer’s pyramid, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich’s revenues have kept pace with those of the English giants. But everywhere else, the trend is clear. According to Deloitte’s latest Football Money League, Leicester City, West Ham, Wolverhampton and Everton now out-earn AC Milan, the current Italian champions.

The trend shows up more so than ever before in transfer market spending. Per Transfermarkt data compiled by Yahoo Sports, the annual gulf in net spend between the Premier League and the other four “big five” leagues combined was around 200 million euros in 2011-12, the last season before the EPL secured its first true TV-contract bonanza. Five years later, the gulf had grown to 800 million. This summer, it has grown to 1.35 billion, with that latest number likely to rise further in January.

Chart: Yahoo Sports | Data: Transfermarkt
Chart: Henry Bushnell/Yahoo Sports | Data: Transfermarkt

The 2022-23 season could also become the first, though probably not the last, in which the raw expenditures of Premier League clubs outstrip those in the other four leagues combined.

Chelsea and Manchester United together outspent the entire Bundesliga, and the entirety of La Liga this summer.

They and others in England can pay so much because they know that outsize revenue shares will continue to flow. The Premier League not only has the grandest domestic TV deal (worth some $5.8 billion over three years); it will also glean almost $6 billion from broadcast rights overseas, where it is far more popular than its competitors. In the United States, for example, it gets $450 million per year from NBC. La Liga gets $175 million annually from ESPN, while Serie A (CBS) and the Bundesliga (ESPN) get $75 million and $33 million, respectively. Similar disparities exist in other markets.

The billions reinforce the Premier League’s preeminence. They attract players, of course, but so does the prestige that the money fuels. Several players have spurned top continental clubs to go to the Prem this summer. They’ve willfully chosen to fight among mid-table muck in England rather than for places in Champions League knockout rounds. Alexander Isak, a $77 million, 22-year-old forward, joined Newcastle. Matheus Nunes, one of Portugal’s brightest talents, went to Wolves. Others went to Forest and Fulham.

Because players and their agents see the cycle spinning, too. They see the gulf continuing to grow. The 16th-place Premier League club is not currently better than third in Germany or fourth in Spain, but eventually, on the current trajectory, it will be.

How EPL spending is shaping future Super League

So, where does all of this lead?

That’s for various institutions outside of England to decide. If there is to be a Super League, the most logical structure now places it atop the European domestic leagues and opposite the Premier League. Eighteen or so clubs would either break away from, or agree with, their domestic leagues to create an entity that would rival and likely outdraw the Prem. The pyramid would look something like this:

Diagram: Henry Bushnell/Yahoo Sports
Diagram: Henry Bushnell/Yahoo Sports

The 18 clubs — say, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Sevilla, Juventus, Inter Milan, AC Milan, Napoli, Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, RB Leipzig, Bayer Leverkusen, PSG, Marseille, Benfica, Porto, Ajax and Salzburg — would leave their domestic leagues to form the European Super League (ESL), which would operate just as the domestic leagues do, only above them.

The bottom two or three each season would be relegated back into their domestic leagues. The winners of those domestic leagues — the remaining “big four,” and dozens of others — would go into a promotion playoff bracket not dissimilar to the current Champions League qualifying format.

The Champions League, meanwhile, could be reformatted and berths in it reallocated.

Domestic cups would remain unchanged and preserve local derbies.

It would be an imperfect solution with numerous hurdles. But, without the English clubs — and ideally with UEFA, European soccer’s governing body, on board — public opposition would be relatively mild.

Whatever the solution, though, there needs to be one. For years, the primary reason was irreversible inequality within countries, between one or a few Goliath clubs and the rest. It has now become clear that, on the current trajectory, the same capitalist forces will create a similar divide between the Premier League and even its most worthy European competitors, just as the Western European club game long ago separated itself from South America and everyone else.