Bayern Munich's Karl-Heinz Rummenigge Dreaming of a European Superleague

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Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, both the CEO of FC Bayern and chairman of the European Club Association, visited Bocconi University in Mila, Italy, this past Tuesday, where he joined representatives of UEFA and FIGC (the Italian soccer federation) in a workshop on the topic "Financial Fair Play: Europe and Italy."

Besides remarks about Carlo Ancelotti (who apparently is already learning German from two teachers) and praise for Gonzalo Higuaín (oh?), it was Rummenigge's comments about the future of European soccer that drew the most attention. Rummenigge can envision a European "superleague" of the twenty best teams in Europe:

"I would not rule out that in the future a European league is founded in which the big teams from Italy, Germany, England, Spain, and France play. . . The league might be organized under UEFA or potentially privately." The purpose of such a league would be "to adapt the soccer system to the new challenges of globalization." He further explained, "That is an idea that came up some time ago. I observed that the top clubs in the five strongest European leagues are constantly growing stronger." devised a hypothetical scenario of how such a league might look:

Italy: Juve, AC Milan, AS Roma
France: PSG, Lyon, Marseille
Spain: Real, Barca, Athletico, Sevilla
Germany: Bayern, Dortmund, Schalke, Leverkusen
England: ManU, City, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham

Although competitive criteria played an important part in their choices, ultimately awarded England six teams because of their immense wealth, and that cuts to the heart of the matter: money.

Proposing a European superleague is certainly one way to cut the Gordion Knot of Financial Fair Play (FFP), a package of measures introduced by UEFA to prevent clubs from spending more than they earn and potentially falling into serious financial trouble. While FFP has reduced overall club losses across Europe, it has also inadvertently solidified the competitive status quo by making it impossible for smaller clubs to spend beyond their means in order to compete with big clubs, while already wealthy clubs continue to operate with their greater, and generally growing, resources. A superleague of European powerhouses would alleviate the problem of FFP by eliminating the need for lesser clubs to compete against the likes of FC Bayern & co. altogether.

That would be a radical solution with wide-ranging implications: for one, a European superleague of teams that competed primarily against themselves would almost certainly spell the end of the Champions League as we know it, unless it were converted into a European cup (like the DFB Pokal or the FA Cup). More importantly, it would decimate the five major national leagues, stripping them of their best teams. That would deal a severe blow to the attractiveness, market, and revenue of those leagues: locals might still tune in to see their club play in the Bundesliga, but globally viewers would watch the superleague, which would enjoy global revenue. It is no coincidence that it would be populated by teams that already have massive global followings, including FC Bayern.

The money from TV rights for a European superleague would undoubtedly be immense, and that is perhaps what makes the idea so attractive to Rummenigge: a superleague of the twenty best teams in Europe would place FC Bayern in a position to enjoy TV revenue comparable to or even greater than the storied money for the EPL. Rather than compete financially against the EPL, FC Bayern could join ranks with their elite clubs and reap the same benefits. It would also address complaints that the Bundesliga and other leagues are not competitive enough -- criticism that is not entirely unwarranted, as Bayern now seems to be cruising toward what will be its fourth title in a row and seventh in ten years (2005/6-2015/16).

How likely is such a superleague? I have often wondered about the endgame of the EPL's dizzying wealth and Champions League revenue. If the wealthiest teams grow ever wealthier, they will continue to dominate their domestic leagues and reap the benefits of European competition (esp. elimination-round TV revenue) in a cycle of established wealth, success, and revenue. As Rummenigge himself has said, there is a widening gap between the elite clubs and the rest. If that gap widens indefinitely, ever more people will question the sense of competition between teams at either end. It's somewhat amusing to watch Bayern crush Hamburg 8-0, or Real crush Rayo Vallecano 10-2, but is it great soccer? The same could be said of games against parked buses.

It is significant, I think, that the CEO of FC Bayern and chairman of the European Club Association is floating the idea publicly, and even more so that he says such a league might be organized "privately," i.e. circumventing UEFA. Whether the idea gains traction will depend on many things, not least the entrenchment of the status quo. Perhaps the most significant factor will be the effect of the English TV deal through 2019 and theirs and other clubs' billionaire owners. Sheikh Mansour's Manchester City is at the forefront: spending €75 mil on Kevin de Bruyne, at whose fee we now know that even Bayern balked, €68 mil for Raheem Sterling, and allegedly also €75 mil over three years for Pep Guardiola. In the 2013/14 season, last-place Queens Park Rangers notoriously made €90.8 mil in TV revenue to FC Bayern's €50.6 mil. Now in 2016 and for the next several years, the EPL is about the get much, much richer. If that finally translates into consistent Champions League success to the detriment of clubs from other countries, the interest in a superleague on the part of major non-English clubs may increase. But then why would the English want to spoil a good thing? They might well prefer to maintain their financial dominance rather than move to a new, potentially more competitive playground.

At least for the present, it will be business as usual. The DFL reacted to Rummenigge's statement with studied indifference: "Brainstorming about alternatives to the Champions League is not entirely new. But we know of no concrete ideas on the subject." It might be the case, though, that nobody asked them.

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