The Premier League’s exorbitant transfer spending makes a European Super League necessary
Nottingham Forest had played exactly zero 21st-century Premier League games when they ventured onto the transfer market this summer. It occupied a position in football’s hierarchy that traditionally attracted second division stars and mid-level EPL veterans. Perhaps the freshly promoted predecessors would also have looked for reinforcements abroad, but only sparingly.
Forest, however, came onto the scene in a new era – and foretells a new world.
Among the more than 20 players it signed this summer, it recruited a Champions League midfielder; and defender of Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid; and the top scorer of a Europa League-qualified Bundesliga club. It surpassed Barcelona, Real Madrid, PSG and Juventus. And it wasn’t alone; 10 of the top 13 donors in the summer window came from England.
Overall, 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, according to Transfermarkt data. La Liga, the next highest, was $57.7 million.
Their spending was unprecedented, but not surprising. They represented an evolution in the power dynamics of European football that has sustained itself. The Premier League makes heaps of money; his clubs use that money to court players; Players create an entertaining product which the Premier League sells to broadcasters and sponsors for lucrative sums of money, which trickles down to clubs who can then woo even bigger players.
The cycle, catalyzed by gigantic TV deals over the last decade, has become unbreakable, leaving continental Europe struggling to keep up. Players like Real Madrid and Juventus increasingly see only two options. They must either push for larger revenue shares of their respective leagues – exacerbating domestic inequality and weakening those leagues – or disrupt the very fabric of European football.
Of course, that’s exactly what they tried to do last year. Madrid and Juve were the main architects of the Super League. It failed because its English members, who need not disturb anything, gave in under enormous 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 optimistic about his European Super League”.
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His future now depends on a court case. But whatever the result, a modified version of it is necessary. And this modified version is shaped by the financial superiority of the Premier League. In many ways, the EPL has already become a Super League – or at least is on the way to becoming one. And Europe will one day have to create a challenger.
Growing gap between EPL and rest
This “sometime” may not be today. At the top of the European football 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 have now surpassed AC Milan, the current Italian champions.
The trend is more evident than ever in transfer market spending. According to Transfermarkt data compiled by Emox News, the annual net spending gap between the Premier League and the other four ‘Big Five’ leagues combined was around €200m in 2011-12, the last season before the EPL their first real TV contract bonanza. Five years later, the gap had grown to 800 million. This summer it’s grown to 1.35 billion, with that latest number likely to rise further in January.
The 2022/23 season could also be the first, though likely not the last, in which Premier League clubs’ raw spending exceeds that of the other four leagues combined.
Chelsea and Manchester United together top the Bundesliga and La Liga overall this summer.
You and others in England are able to pay so much because you know that outsize revenue shares will keep flowing. Not only does the Premier League have the largest domestic TV deal (worth around $5.8 billion over three years); It will also raise nearly $6 billion from overseas broadcast rights, where it’s far more popular than its competitors. In the United States, for example, it gets $450 million a year from NBC. La Liga receives $175 million annually from ESPN, while Serie A (CBS) and Bundesliga (ESPN) receive $75 million and $33 million, respectively. Similar differences exist in other markets.
The billions underpin the supremacy of the Premier League. They attract players, of course, but also the prestige that drives the money. Several players have spurned top continental clubs from going to the Prem this summer. They made a conscious choice to fight in midfield in England rather than for places in the knockout rounds of the Champions League. Alexander Isak, a 22-year-old $77million forward, joined Newcastle. One of Portugal’s greatest talents, Matheus Nunes, has joined Wolves. Others went to Forest and Fulham.
Because the players and their agents also see how the cycle turns. You see that the gap continues to widen. The Premier League club in 16th place is not for now better than third place in Germany or fourth place in Spain but ultimately it will be on the current path.
How EPL editions are shaping the future Super League
So where is all this leading to?
Different institutions outside England have to decide that. If there is to be a Super League, the most logical structure now places it at the top of the European domestic leagues and opposite the Premier League. Some eighteen clubs would either break away from, or come to terms with, their domestic leagues to form an entity that would rival and likely surpass the Prem. The pyramid would look something like this:
The 18 clubs – say Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Seville, Juventus, Inter Milan, AC Milan, Napoli, Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, RB Leipzig, Bayer Leverkusen, PSG, Marseille, Benfica, Porto, and Ajax Salzburg – would leave their domestic leagues to form the European Super League (ESL) which would function the same as the domestic leagues, only above them.
The bottom two or three of each season would be relegated back to their domestic leagues. The winners of these domestic leagues – the remaining “Big Four” and dozens 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 reallocated within it.
National cups would remain unchanged and local derbies would be retained.
It would be an imperfect solution with numerous hurdles. But without English clubs – and ideally with UEFA, the governing body of European football, on board – public opposition would be relatively small.
Whatever the solution, there has to be one. For years, the main reason has been the irreversible inequality within countries, between one or a few Goliath clubs and the rest. It has now become clear that the same capitalist forces on the current trajectory are creating a similar divide between the Premier League and even its worthy European competitors just as Western European club sport parted ways with South America and all the rest a long time ago.