Ahead of a meeting with the breakaway ‘Super League’ football competition, the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) has insisted on economic concentration as a precondition for the successful development of the sport in Europe.
The European football governing body and organizer of the Champions League is currently engaged in a court case against the organizers of the Super League, who accused UEFA of being a cartel in violation of EU competition law.
In April 2021, 12 top clubs announced their intention to start ‘The Super League’ – a more exclusive club competition than the Champions League. The new format would guarantee the top clubs more games among themselves, which would likely increase those clubs’ revenue.
However, a wave of criticism from fans, other clubs, and politicians quickly led nine of the 12 clubs to step back from the project.
UEFA was particularly keen to sink the project, threatening the participating clubs with exclusion from domestic and European competitions and warning players that they could be banned from playing in their national teams.
“We will consider all measures available to us, at all levels, both judicial and sporting in order to prevent [the Super League] happening,” a joint statement by UEFA, FIFA, and some large national football associations said.
The breakaway Super League would exclude other clubs from accessing the competition based on sporting merit, they criticised.
Waiting for the European Court of Justice
With only three remaining clubs – Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Juventus – the Super League organizers challenged UEFA’s pressure methods in front of a Madrid court, accusing the European football association of anti-competitive practices. The case has been referred to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) to determine whether the UEFA practices breached EU competition law.
According to associate law professor Robby Houben, one of the main problems is that UEFA reserves itself the right of prior approval for football competitions, while simultaneously being the regulator and the sole organizer of European football competitions.
“UEFA has an inherent conflict of interest. When it has to decide on new market operators, it will not allow new market entrants, of course, because it has a monopoly,” Houben told EURACTIV.
While the ECJ mulls over the Super League case in Luxemburg, the Super League organizers launched a new PR offensive, showing openness to dialogue and appointing the former TV executive Bernd Reichert as CEO.
This Tuesday (8 November), Reichert will join a meeting with UEFA president Aleksander Čeferin for an open discussion.
However, UEFA general secretary Theodore Theodoridis downplayed the importance of the meeting, putting it into the context of the upcoming UEFA Conference. “We are talking to everybody about the future of football, so why not with [Reichert] as well,” Theodoridis told EURACTIV.
Monopoly rents for football development
In a meeting with journalists at the UEFA headquarters in the Swiss town of Nyon, UEFA executives insisted that UEFA’s monopoly position as organizer of European football competitions was important for the development and growth of European football.
“Centralisation is the game changer for clubs,” the UEFA’s head of competitions strategic development Stéphane Anselmo said, arguing that it allowed to collectively negotiate TV rights, the most important source of revenue for the Champions League. A large majority of Champions League revenues are distributed to clubs, thus making them an important revenue stream for football clubs.
The UEFA executives also stressed that some of the money is distributed to clubs that do not participate in the Champions League, thus also helping those on the lower tiers.
Indeed, Champions League revenues have grown strongly. For the three-year period of 2012-2015, the top European club competition made revenues of €1.46 billion. In the three-year period of 2021-2024, revenues reached €3.14 billion, and they are projected to rise even further in the 2024-2027 period.
Meanwhile, viewership did not increase correspondingly, suggesting that the UEFA is able to use its monopoly to squeeze ever more economic rents from other market players, for example from fans or advertisers.
In December, the ECJ’s advocate general will present his opinion on the case, with the court’s verdict expected in the following months.
According to Houben, it is not likely that the court will break the UEFA’s monopoly for European football competitions. However, the court could force the UEFA to provide clear and non-discretionary criteria for how other European football competitions must be organized to get the UEFA approval and to introduce a better appeal process, with access to EU courts, that lets clubs fight a UEFA decision if they find it unreasonable.
[Edited by Nathalie Weatherald]