Soccer's cold civil war
FIFA and UEFA are at war with the clubs. UEFA has declared war on FIFA. UEFA and the clubs have always been at war with FIFA. That and sports angling for a spot at the Winter Olympics.
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Soccer’s cold, civil war
There’s an obvious power struggle within the institution of soccer.
The prize is the simply insane amount of revenue that can be leveraged from the fact that lots of people, especially in wealthy European countries and big, less wealthy countries, want to watch the elite level of soccer. With that comes the attendant power and prestige that only raw dollars can buy in this, the Sizzling 20s, and the ability to reshape the future of soccer, especially its sporting calendar, as best suits the needs of the winners.
Let’s consider the actors.
In one bloc, we have the clubs. FIFA counts nearly 4,000 professional clubs but of those, only a handful really matter. They are the ones that you would be able to rattle off if asked on a TV quiz show: the Manchesters, Liverpool, the London trio, Paris St Germain, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, the Milans, Juventus, maybe Rangers or Celtic, etc. The fact that there is a substantial overlap in this list and the Super League clubs is not an accident.
A subset of powerful actors within the club bloc, are the owners. Even within the god tier clubs, there are various strains. We have the Gulf states - Newcastle United with the Saudis, Paris St Germain with the Qataris, Manchester City with the Emiratis - lumped together because they have roughly the same goal of using these teams to launder their images and stash their cash1. There’s also the Americans - the Glazers of the Tampa Bay Bucaneers that own Manchester United, Stan Kroenke of the LA Rams that owns Arsenal, and the San Francisco 49ers that have a stake (and likely to be full ownership) in Leeds United - whose ignorance of, if not downright contempt for, European sporting tradition leads them to eschew said tradition in favour of revenue. There’s also traditionally owned clubs, particularly in Germany2, and, I suspect, we’ll soon see more non-state private equity stakes.
Understanding who’s who in this zoo provides explanatory mechanisms for why some clubs, and not others, take certain actions. They are by no means a united force but they share similar aspirations: maximising profitability. On their own, we have seen the clubs are not powerful enough to take control - yet - but they are a force to be reckoned with.
In a second bloc, we have the global governing body, FIFA. FIFA are trying desperately to push through a biennial World Cup, something that no one asked for, as well as expanding their own Club World Cup, a perennially low stakes competition belied by the magnitude of the title and its inevitably European winner3.
This week, FIFA presented its consultants’ report on the benefits of the biennial World Cup at its global summit. I’m not going to read it because I can guess what it will contain and the headline will be sufficient:
OpenEconomics suggested a biennial FIFA Men’s World Cup could deliver a gross domestic product gain of more than $180 billion (£136 billion/€160 million) over a 16-year period, while generating two million full-time jobs.
FIFA expects the majority of its federations to vote in favour, with support from the African confederation4 and despite substantial pushback from the more powerful European and South American confederations. The others remain ostensibly neutral.
In the third bloc, squeezed between the clubs and FIFA, we have the European confederation, UEFA. The popularity of the Champions League (and, to a lesser extent, its lower tier spinoffs) and the Euros means that UEFA has considerable firepower within soccer.
UEFA recently created the Nations League, a pro-rel league system designed to take meaningless friendlies and turn them into competitive matches that might generate more interest and revenue.
This week, it was announced that planning was underway to have CONMEBOL (South America) join the Nations League from 2024:
UEFA vice-president Zbigniew Boniek has revealed plans for members of the South American Football Confederation (CONMEBOL) to join its Nations League from 2024 as the two continental bodies strengthen their relationship and opposition to FIFA's plans for a biennial World Cup.
Suddenly, soccer’s biggest markets - England, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, as well as Brazil and Argentina - are playing internationals under a single competitive banner that is not under FIFA’s direct control. The Nations League’s inaugural season received positive reviews and this move, some growth and a bit of luck could see it rival the World Cup as the international tournament.5
UEFA’s consultants also returned their report this week, stating that the biennial World Cup is a Bad Idea.
I, for one, am shocked.
I think breaking down the current political situation into these blocs has some explanatory power, especially if you read this civil war - which is currently cold, with the potential to turn hot - in a similar manner to the perpetual wars fought in 1984 between Eurasia, Eastasia and Oceania.
If FIFA had supported the clubs in their Super League efforts earlier in the year, it would have completely undermined UEFA as a power. The Champions League would lose considerable lustre (and then broadcast dollars) as the big clubs focus on the Super League, creating space which could be more readily occupied by the Club World Cup. FIFA would also have been able to allow player-defectors to participate in FIFA-sanctioned tournaments and ignore any UEFA representative bans. But FIFA and UEFA sang from the same songsheet and, with the overwhelming support of fans, managed to cram the clubs back into their box. For now.
Can UEFA switch sides to join the clubs and kill off a biennial World Cup? Perhaps. The clubs hate releasing players for internationals because they come back tired and injured and deprive the club of the production that owners pay for. UEFA has a number of promising and established properties that need air to breathe and a biennial World Cup, potentially squishing their continental championship into a biennial cycle to match, removing qualifiers and destroying the nascent Nations League, never mind the impact on the multiple layers of club European football, reduces the attention and consequent revenue available to them.
For what it’s worth, the fans remain committed, psychotically, to the status quo and are still smarting, a lot, from the Super League fracas. The status quo may be shit - a fact they will freely admit - and FIFA/UEFA/their club front office full of wankers but it’s their status quo and they’re damned if they’re going to see anyone change it6. It seems strange, but perhaps not surprising, that none of the blocs have really tried to court the fans to their side. One wonders what you might offer them as a carrot?
The grace, the beauty of sports
Very normal things
Sure. It’s weird how transparent this is and yet the CCP is perservering. Makes me think we - those of us in the west - are not the intended audience.7 They may bank on the west losing interest eventually, which is a likely outcome.
The WTA is staying out of China for the time being. Good for them.
The article linked above is as completely vacuous an example of journalism as you could hope for. The WaPo has more or less just relayed what the crypto neckbeards wanted them to say without providing any meaningful context.
It’s crazy to me that you would take anyone seriously in sports if they said, “They will use that money to invest in analytics, they say, and outspend opponents to quickly climb the EFL ladder.” Those are usually mutually exclusive goals: if you can outspend your opponents, you don’t need to invest in analytics. That’s just basic facts, never mind the presentation of NFTs or crypto as anything other than a speculative bubble that surely has to be in its dumb money phase.
Anyway, in the time since the last newsletter and this one, it all fell through with noticeable pushback from the fans and the existing ownership. The good news is stuff like this making the news means the ass falling out of the market can’t be too far off but I’ve been thinking that for years about bitcoin (up 4% today) so who knows.
There’s something to be said for the flip side of the current economic situation. While there’s plenty of capital floating around and finding its way into sport- and crypto-affiliated spaces, that capital is not well distributed. The overwhelming feeling is that work and outcomes have been de-coupled8, so no matter how hard you work, you can’t really get ahead, let alone become rich. Crypto, and other get rich quick schemes (see also: any MLM), offer people a lottery ticket to potential wealth with the veneer of being a savvy - and not jus lucky - operator. As much as I’d like to see this abhorrent waste of energy disappear, unless this driver is resolved, there will always be a fundamental source of suckers until everyone gets really badly burnt.
Given the economic ties and political tensions, it’s interesting to see the territories of China and Australia wrapped up solely by the NFL franchise I am now obliged to declare my allegiance to, the Los Angeles Rams, even though one of the nice parts about the NFL is that I don’t have any skin in the game.
With the NFL changing the way it markets the game internationally, lots of teams piled into the UK, host of several games each year, Germany, where American football remains inexplicably popular after the failed NFL Europa, and Mexico, the largest foreign market for the NFL. Just under half the league declined to take any opportunities.
I’m curious to see where this all leads in terms of NFL expansion. There are still a few markets in the US that could support NFL teams that don’t already have one9 and the previous international marketing strategy done out of head office would suggest softening up places like London and Mexico City for future franchise locations but now, if those places are going to be territories of existing franchises, that suggests not.
Speaking of skin in the game, the NFL probably doesn’t need to involve itself in geopolitics by showing Taiwan as part of China in the above but damned if you do, damned if you don’t. I want to know if it was an innocent accident or on purpose.
I don’t have an especially informed take on the rights or wrongs of the MLB-led rationalisation of the minor leagues, reducing the number of teams from 160 down to 120, presumably to save costs so the franchises in the majors are only running four teams in each of their farm systems, but it would suck to lose a team you may care about in the middle of nowhere where you live because a billionaire/big city team wanted to save a few bucks.
I definitely don’t have an informed take on the potential of this court case but I think it might be worth putting a pin in, for the anti-trust aspects10 outlined in the article itself, but also with private equity sniffing around and that might affect the balance of power within the minors and also the relationship between the minor and major leagues.
But, not as I suggested to a free-for-all, but instead alternating men and women, which seems remarkably pointless. Catch up with the rest, would you.
News from around the grounds
Getting into the Winter Olympics
I actually meant to write about this and a few other things last week but it got swamped by what I did end up writing about.
The UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup swaps the mud of northern Europe for the snow of the Italian Alps this weekend, with the Val di Sole races held on packed snow in an attempt to demonstrate that cyclo-cross has the potential to be a winter Olympic discipline.
For what it’s worth, the women’s race was great and the men’s was a demonstration of the superiority of Wout van Aert as an athlete. Overall, I enjoyed the event because the range of surfaces that cross throws at riders is one of the things that makes it interesting and obviously, there’s not a lot of pure snow and ice courses at the elite level.
Inside the Games did a good rundown on why this strategy is unlikely to be successful long term:
Cyclo-cross, similarly to cross-country in athletics, can certainly mount a claim for being a winter sport due to the months the disciplines take place in the sporting calendar. Yet traditional winter sports, if you remember, were unsurprisingly opposed to when World Athletics were keen to put cross-country forward for the Winter Olympics.
In 2017, the International Ski Federation said the Games should be for sports with "DNA on/with snow and ice", noting that cross-country and biathlon roller skiing or grass skiing would not be considered for the Summer Games programme under the same logic.
World Athletics appeared to have accepted its efforts would continue to hit a brick wall for the Winter Olympics, with sights turned instead towards the Summer Games.
This makes sense. The summer sport federations see a somewhat lazy opportunity to increase their footprint at the other olympics. The established winter sport federations are protecting their turf, as they do not want to share broadcast revenue with interlopers and one has to realistically question how much cross country or cyclocross would improve the Winter Olympic broadcast arrangements.
That might not be enough though. World Triathlon announced the location of its European Winter Championships this week, so they see value in persisiting with this route. I suspect we will see more cross World Cup events on snow as well. I wonder if enough summer sports federations, like athletics, cycling, triathlon and perhaps others11, would then have enough combined weight to force their way in if they work together.
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Interesting to discover that, with a tiny handful of exceptions, the franchises in the big 4 US sports leagues remain almost entirely in US or Canadian hands.
I am aware Brazilian clubs have also won the title but its as diverse a list of champions as you’ll see on any modern pentathlon podium.
It remains to be seen whether a ladder to the rest of the world would be created or if this would be a Super League of sorts because few outside of Europe and South America bring in the megabucks that might make it worth creating a ladder system.
To me, an outsider, it looked for all money like people who had not fully grasped what had happened to soccer over the last few decades but that’s a story for another time. I don’t get it but that’s what it is.
This may be obvious to you, the scintillating brain genious, but I am a simple blogger.
Perhaps it was ever thus.
Buffalo ranks 47th largest combined statistical area area by population in the US, suggesting there’s another twenty or so big cities that could house new teams, even if Buffalo is somewhat supported by the surrounding upstate New York and being at the bottom of the Golden Horseshoe. Obviously there’s market delimitation details that would need to be worked out before, say, the Grand Rapids Rapid or the Spartanburg Spartans could join the league.
Which might have knock-on impacts to baseball’s labour issues.
Swimming might be a tough ask.