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EU Commission opens the door to a European Super League

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Bayern Munich and Dortmund could be the German representatives in an alternative to the Champions League—operating outside UEFA’s rules.

Neymar Jr of Paris Saint-Germain react with Corentin Tolisso and Kingsley Coman of Bayern Muenchen during the UEFA Champions League group B match between Bayern Muenchen and Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) at Allianz Arena on December 5, 2017 in Munich, Germany.
Neymar confronts Corentin Tolisso and Kingsley Coman, December 5, 2017.
Photo by Xavier Laine/Getty Images

A recent article by Sport Bild's Berries Boßmann outlines the potentially massive consequences that a recent European legal decision may have on UEFA and, by extension, Bayern Munich and the Bundesliga—potentially throwing the door open to a European Super League that operates outside UEFA's rules.

Skating at their own speed: speed-skaters vs the ISU

Speed Skating - Winter Olympics Day 8
Mark Tuitert competing at Sochi, 2014.
Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

It all began with a lawsuit brought against the International Skating Union (ISU) by two Dutch speed-skaters, Mark Tuitert and Niels Kerstholt (source: Politico.eu). In 2014, the two had wanted to take part in a race in Dubai organized by a South Korean firm called Icederby. The prize money at stake was massive compared to their normal winnings from ISU-sponsored events: a whopping $130,000 versus a measly €2,000 at ISU events.

As the governing body of speed-skating, however, ISU forbade the skaters to take part in the event, threatening them with potentially lifelong bans.

Now the EU Commission has ruled in favor of the plaintiffs: the court decided that prohibiting skaters from participating in outside competitions represents an abuse of the ISU’s market dominance. The EU Competition Commissioner, Margrethe Vestager, ordered the ISU to abolish its “disproportionately punitive” sanctions for athletes who participate in non-ISU competitions.

Vestager concluded that threatening suspensions and bans served “to protect [ISU’s] own commercial interests and prevent others from setting up their own events.” The change should “open up new opportunities for athletes and competing organisers, to the benefit of all ice skating fans.”

The ruling is in line with a trend that views sports federations more like other corporations and less like legal cartels exempt from antitrust rules.

Offside no more: a Super League outside of FIFA and UEFA

The ruling has major implications for sports organizations across Europe, since many governing bodies, including UEFA, threaten players and clubs with bans and suspensions for participating in unauthorized events. That all may change, as there now is a legal precedent that could protect players’ and clubs’ right to participate in events not sanctioned by established sports federations.

First and foremost on the mind of Bayern Munich fans is the potential for a European Super League of the top clubs in Europe, effectively transforming the Champions League into a permanent league independent of the respective national leagues. Bayern Chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge has discussed the possibility repeatedly in the past.

The appeal of a Super League remains. It recently emerged that the “big five” Premier League clubs—Chelsea, Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, and Arsenal—met secretly to discuss recent changes to the format of the Champions League (full story at The Guardian). Representatives of these clubs were also seen leaving a meeting with billionaire Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, the founder of the preseason International Champions Cup in which Bayern Munich participated just this past summer.

Miami Dolphins v Atlanta Falcon
Stephen Ross
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Ross is the foremost champion of an NFL-style Super League of soccer. According to Sport Bild, Ross’s concept for a European Super League is a closed league of 24 European teams—no promotion, no relegation. Only Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund would represent Germany in this particular plan.

There is some confusion as to whether such a Super League would supplant merely the Champions League—presuming that UEFA could not ban the participating clubs from their respective national leagues—or indeed represent a breakaway from the national leagues altogether. By extension, for example, the ISU ruling could protect players at Super League clubs from being banned by FIFA from international competitions such as the Euros or the World Cup.

There are indeed signs that a complete break with UEFA might appeal more to some among the elite clubs of Europe: participating clubs could anticipate a significant increase in broadcasting revenue, since a bevy of clashes with elite clubs would draw vastly more attention than a protracted Champions League group stage against small clubs from the backwaters of European soccer.

As a further potential perk of a European Super League outside of UEFA, clubs also would no longer be bound by UEFA’s Financial Fair Play policies. But here Bayern Munich might represent a dissenting voice, since it definitely does not have the independent financial resources of clubs like Paris Saint-Germain or Manchester City.

Rummenigge blasts UEFA over international competitions

The speculation about a European Super League comes at the same time that Bayern chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge directed pointed words at the UEFA and FIFA officials who are scheduled to convene in Bogota, Colombia, to discuss the future of various competitions, including the Club World Cup and the Nations League (source: Bild).

Gianni Infantino wants to expand the Club World Cup from seven to twenty-four teams and schedule it to follow the Confederations Cup as a summer tournament. UEFA and the top Europeans clubs, including Bayern Munich, are resolutely against the idea. UEFA meanwhile wants to expand the brand new Nations League into a Global Nations League.

Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, CEO of FC Bayern Muenchen arrives at Munich international airport 'Franz Josef Strauss' prior their team flight for the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 Second Leg match against Besiktas Istanbul on March 13, 2018 in Munich, Germany.
Karl-Heinz Rummenigge speaks to the press before flying with the team to Istanbul, March 13, 2018.
Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Bongarts/Getty Images

Rummenigge responded to these plans with withering criticism:

I’d recommend that FIFA and UEFA not deliberate without considering the position of the European Club Association and the clubs. We will not accept anything we don’t like. The Nations League is yet again proof that over the past twenty years the competitions of the national teams have been expanded continuously . . . I see UEFA and FIFA in a situation in which they are shamelessly and aggressively jeopardizing the health of the players.

Bayern will no doubt leverage its influence to wrest concessions from UEFA, but the Bavarian giant is probably not ready to break entirely—at least not without some assurance it can compete financially with the European elite.