Football’s European Super League: a competing competition or a competition dispute?

Published: 19/4/2021

Major European football clubs in talks to establish The European Super League, in direct competition with the UEFA-organised Europa and Champions Leagues.

Over the weekend, as the Super League Triathlon was taking place in Rotterdam, the news broke that 12 major European football clubs were planning to create a new mid-week European league (the European Super League, ESL), in direct competition with the UEFA-organised Europa and Champions Leagues. It was not long until critical voices started appearing against this challenge of the status quo. Unsurprisingly, UEFA expressed its discontent with the prospect of a league that could threaten the popularity of the existing competitions, along with national leagues, governing bodies, fans and even the UK Prime Minister, who suggested that the UK government would "support football authorities in taking action".

Whilst the popularity of football and its existing competitions makes the reaction unsurprising, this type of development is not new in the world of sports. As more capital has started flowing into sports’ competitions, incumbent leagues have been facing rivalry across different sports. For instance, the International Swimming League or Super League Triathlon have provided alternative formats of competition to those organised by their respective international federations. Similarly, in cricket, the Indian Premier League has revolutionised and increased the popularity and market size of the sport, despite the reluctance of the sport’s governing bodies.

These are just a number of examples that show how the sports business space is evolving. It is thus not surprising that some major clubs within European football, with already established mass popularity and audience, are looking to follow in the footsteps of other sports trying to shake up and capture the existing market, or that J.P. Morgan are reportedly backing this new venture. But, given the criticisms, will the European Super League of football come to fruition, or will the critics manage to prevent the ESL from becoming a reality?

The UEFA, alongside several national leagues and governing bodies, has issued a statement explaining that it will consider all possible measures and, crucially, suggesting that "the clubs concerned will be banned from playing in any other competition at domestic, European or world level, and their players could be denied the opportunity to represent their national teams". Are these empty threats, or are governing bodies able to ban players and teams from existing leagues in light of the ESL? Previous competition law cases have considered similar questions.

Notably, in December 2020, the General Court of the European Union ruled on a case considering the ability of the International Skating Union (ISU) to impose penalties on athletes for their participation in third-party competitions (i.e. competitions not sanctioned by the ISU). Whilst the General Court emphasised the regulatory function of ISU as a governing body, it assessed the ISU’s “eligibility rules” (which included a lifetime ban from ISU competitions for athletes participating in unsanctioned competitions) and concluded that they were in breach of competition law. Those rules "unduly deprived [third-party organisers] of access to the relevant market".

In the same way, the International Swmming League (ISL) faced similar threats in its early stages from FINA (the International Swimming Federation), which refused to recognise the ISL and threatened with issuing bans on athletes that took part in the ISL. Although FINA ultimately changed its position, competition law cases have been brought in the US following FINA’s sanction threats.

As events unfold in relation to the future of the ESL, fresh competition law disputes may well arise that define the future role of governing bodies in sports.

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