Analysis - As Europe's Super League dies, hopes of Asian riches fade

John Geddie and Martin Quin Pollard
·4 min read
A metal figure of a football player with a ball is seen in front of the words "European Super League" and the UEFA logo in this illustration

By John Geddie and Martin Quin Pollard

BEIJING (Reuters) - While Europe celebrated the collapse of soccer's elite Super League project on Wednesday, some business analysts and fans said it was a missed opportunity to grow the sport's following and revenues in its prized Asian market.

In a tumultuous 72 hours since its announcement, the majority of the 12 founding clubs from England, Spain and Italy had pulled out from the venture after a storm of fan and political protests and threats of sanctions and bans from other competitions.

The move was due to have an immediate cash boost for the clubs, who have struggled during the COVID-19 pandemic in which games were played behind closed doors, broadcast deals were cancelled and sponsors tightened their purse-strings.

They were set to be in line for as much as 350 million euros ($420.39 million) each for signing on, according to media reports, around three times the sum on offer for winning Europe's current top tier competition, the Champions League.

But the deal's longer-term appeal, analysts said, was the opportunity to expand deeper into some of their fast-growing markets in Asia.

"We are mostly hearing from voices in Europe protesting against this," said Yan Qiang, founder of Chinese sports media firm Score Sports and a leading football commentator in China.

"However, if this product really came to fruition... selling to China would almost certainly have great business prospects. A lot of fans are willing to embrace such an excellent product," he added, speaking to Reuters from his office in East Beijing where he displayed several signed shirts from the European clubs that were set to join the Super League.

While outrage at the plans, seen by many as a money grab by the clubs' owners, continued to simmer across Europe, the news has left some fans in Asia disappointed on missing out on more regular top tier football.

"It is a bit of a shame. I really want to see if they can build a better platform (for elite soccer)," said Xu Boyang, a 29-year-old Arsenal fan in China, the world's most populous country and home to the highest number of soccer fans globally.

GROWTH OPPORTUNITY

The sport is also loved in Asia's other major population centre, India, with 41% of respondents to a poll by the European Club Association last year saying they were fans of the sport, versus 26% in Europe's largest economy Germany.

Thomas Abraham of SportzPower, a company that monitors sports business in India, said some fans there will also be left ruing the opportunity killed by a fierce loyalty to "century-old legacies" in Europe.

"Following European clubs is not only about loyalty, but also has aspirational underpinnings, especially among the young (soccer fans in India)," he said.

The 10 most supported clubs in Asia were all poised to join the new Super League, according to a poll by football research firm Ganassa last year. Manchester United had the most support, with 20% of respondents pledging allegiance to the club made famous by the likes of David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo.

That level of fandom comes with lucrative broadcasting deals and sponsorship opportunities, the top drivers of elite clubs' revenue over the likes of ticket sales and merchandise, said Michael Goldberg, a sports finance expert at ratings agency DBRS Morningstar.

"A lot of these brands are pretty well as big as they can possibly be locally, and all of the growth has come (from) outside," said Goldberg. "The Asian market has been growingly important to the big clubs."

Asia accounts for $553 million of the $1.66 billion the English Premier League receives from overseas broadcast rights, according to media reports.

Investors have also viewed the collapse of the league as a missed business chance.

Manchester United's shares have fallen around 8% from a peak hit during Monday's trading, while Italy's Juventus, another club in the competition, saw its shares drop 14% on Wednesday.

STAR ASPECT

"Fans Before Finance" read one sign hoisted by a group of supporters protesting against the breakaway league before Liverpool's match against Leeds on Sunday, hours after the plan was unveiled.

It was emblematic of the criticisms of the scheme across Europe, seen by many as a move that would stifle competition as it guaranteed entry every year to its elite founding members.

Defending the scheme, Real Madrid president Florentino Perez said it was designed to "save football", bulwarking clubs' finances by re-engaging an audience bored of low quality games.

"The solution is to make more attractive matches that fans from all over the world can see," he said.

Cameron Wilson, founding editor of Wild East Football, a site dedicated to covering Chinese soccer, said such a promise struck a chord with Chinese soccer fans.

"They're casual supporters who follow the sport because of the kind of star aspect, not necessarily because they feel a deep connection with football culture," said Shanghai-based Wilson.

(Reporting by Martin Pollard in Beijing and John Geddie in London; Additional reporting by Amlan Chakraborty in New Delhi; Editing by Pritha Sarkar)