The Case for League Mergers in Europe: Part One

As the momentum for merging football leagues in Europe is gaining, I thought it was time to provide more of my thought process into why this is such a great idea for all involved. I won’t try and recreate the article that I was graciously allowed to provide to the “No Short Corners” blog, but will instead try and focus on specific reasons why consolidation is in the best interests of European football, and failing to do so will lead to stagnation and (perish the thought) flat or declining TV revenues. Part one focuses on revenue and attendances below:

As exciting as it is to watch Champions League encounters, especially ones where your favorite team plays well. It is apparent that the gulf between the haves and the have nots of European football will only continue to widen over the next few years. Instead of looking to parity to save themselves from boring encounters, UEFA has instituted new rules determined to keep the top four leagues winning Europe’s biggest trophy. Financial Fair Play is a great idea, please don’t misunderstand me, but without rules to help lower league teams compete with the top four, it ensures a financial disparity that will be all but impossible to overcome. So, the champions of Scotland (Celtic) as good a team as they have assembled over the past 18 months with their meager resources, still have no realistic shot at competing with the likes of Juventus, who only had what seemed like three scoring chances the whole game on Tuesday night, and yet scored on all of them. Celtic showed promise and initiative the whole game, with naught to show for it (Juventus physical tactics aside).

Aside from the match itself, Leagues around Europe who are not based in England, Spain, Germany, and Italy are looking at ways to increase revenue (mostly from television) as well as their competitiveness in European events. The sad fact that they are based in a “second tier” country severely limits their ability to do so.

For example, Celtic have the third largest stadium capacity in the United Kingdom, behind only Manchester United and Arsenal. Their fierce cross town rivals Rangers have the fifth largest. Both these facilities are regularly sold out, with some of the most passionate support in world football. However, because they are restricted to play in the Scottish Premier League, their TV revenue is a paltry £2M a year (note this does not include their recent £28M windfall from Celtic’s 2012-13 Champions League participation). This is for a team that consistently has its stadium filled to capacity (60,000).

Now let’s compare those numbers to a team in the English Premier League; Wigan Athletic. Now, I have absolutely nothing personal against Wigan, they have a great manager, play attractive flowing football, and have worked hard to get into the EPL and manage to just stay there every year for the past 7 seasons, with an average finish of 15th place (three places above the relegation zone). However, due to this “just enough to survive” mentality they have been able to collect nearly £50M in TV revenue every year. That’s a lot of money for a club that can’t even draw a paltry 20,000 fans to their home games (roughly equal to the average MLS game in the United States, the country’s fourth largest sport ).

The Scottish champions, with far less TV revenue, draw an average of 46,000 to their home games, and thats even without the presence of their fierce rivals Rangers in the top flight for the 2012-13 season. Consider that the second biggest draw in the SPL this year (Heart of Midlothian) have an average attendance of 13,000, it is easy to see that Celtic would be a financial boon to any league they participated in.

Yet, the powers that be in the English Premier League are determined not to open their doors to clubs such as Celtic. Never mind the fact that clubs outside of England already ply their trade in the SPL (Swansea, and maybe Cardiff very soon, but this is often scoffed at by pundits in England). Perhaps they realize the threat that a club like Celtic can muster with an additional £50M in revenue. And are content, due solely to geography, to allow second tier clubs to play in their top flight. With recent evidence showing that the EPL is no longer the “best league in the world,” as that distinction now belongs to La Liga in Spain.

This concept of “regionalisation” has been bandied about before, whether in the form of the “Atlantic League” concept (which is a doomed one from the start) or other forms of mergers. Certainly, for clubs such as Celtic, finding a more attractive league is truly their only option. Other leagues around Europe are starting to see the light on this as the Russian and Ukrainian leagues are now looking to merge. This is being driven by the top teams in the Russian league and it has been given its blessing by UEFA President Michael Platini, a good view on it and its effect on Scottish football can be found on the Celtic Quick News webiste.

What Russia and Ukraine are realizing is the fact that consolidation brings values such as increased competition, interest (read: money) from the media, and parity. Parity is a dirty word in England, as they general attitude is having the same four clubs at the top every year is “good” for English football, and when lower teams succeed its due to the fact that the quality of the league is poorer, not that these teams have improved by any great deal.

Consolidation is not just happening in Russia, there is also talk of merger in the Balkans and Scandavia. In the case of the former it has been driven by the fact that since the split of Yugoslavia, their respective football leagues have declined substantially, to the point that former powerhouses such as Red Star Belgrade are now minnows named Crvena Zvezda (ok, thats Serbian for Red Star, but if you have followed football for years you get my point).

As long as a second tier of successful football clubs exists, this issue will come to the fore again and again. Consider that five clubs outside the top four nations made it through to the last sixteen of the champions league (Celtic, Paris St. Germain, Galatasaray, Shaktar, and Porto), and only two of clubs face a reasonable chance of advancing to the quarter finals (factoring in Celtic’s loss to Juventus and Paris’s win over Valencia, the latter’s rise to prominence largely financed by Qatar investment company). So it will be as you were in the Champions League once again for 2013.

Next: How Scotland can thrive without Celtic and Rangers in a merged league.


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