Earlier this month, German news magazine Der Spiegel published a report that could only be described as a bombshell in the soccer world. According to leaked documents, top European clubs have secretly formulated a plan for a European ‘‘super league.’’ This is not the first time such a league has been rumored, but the details were appalling: An elite group privately scheming to take the best of European soccer and close it off from the rest of Europe, all in the hopes of taking more money for already-rich clubs.
It’s a bad idea. Fans around the world agree. But sports fans in Minnesota can tell you this from experience, not from fear, since they’ve seen it happen before.
In the college hockey world, speculation about a Big Ten hockey conference bubbled for decades. In 1981 Michigan State and Michigan left the WCHA for the CCHA. For more than 30 years afterward, Big Ten hockey existed only in crossover games between Minnesota, Wisconsin and the other three Big Ten schools.
It’s not hard to understand why the Big Ten hockey speculation was greeted with fear from other fans. Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and Michigan State were by any measure four of the six or seven biggest teams in the whole sport. Put them in a single league and why would anyone watch anything else? Why would recruits play hockey anywhere else? How could any other team expect to survive?
As hockey fans know, when the conference finally launched in 2013, the precise opposite happened. After it fans languished decades on a waiting list for season tickets, Minnesota now struggles to get Mariucci Arena more than half full. Wisconsin’s attendance has dropped more than 40 percent since a 2010 high. Last season, only 6,400 fans showed up to Mariucci for a Gophers-Badgers game, once one the showpieces of the year.
Even after adding Notre Dame to the conference, none of the seven teams in the league have won a national championship in more than ten years.
A different sport, a much smaller scale, but it’s a warning to the would-be European super league participants all the same. The popularity of club soccer is built on local rivalries, just as western college hockey’s popularity was built on intra-Minnesota and intra-Michigan rivalries. The Champions League is an interesting soccer spectacle, but the popularity of European soccer depends far more on the hundreds of teams outside the elite.
The European super league teams would find exactly what Big Ten hockey teams found out: Extra exposure for already over-exposed teams isn’t all that helpful. Big Ten hockey lost fans, rather than gaining them, and the rest of the college hockey world continued to be fans of their own favorite teams.
Playing more matches between top European soccer teams won’t magically conjure more fans. It’ll just devalue the occasional battles that fans already see.
Don’t start a European super league. It’s not the rest of soccer that needs to worry about it, though. It’s the elite clubs, the super league clubs, that need to worry. Like those breakaway Big Ten hockey teams, they’ll find out that there’s less money and attention to be had than they think.
• The U.S. women’s national team finished its 2018 schedule with road victories against Portugal and Scotland, giving the squad an undefeated season for the fourth time in history. On the one hand, the two wins were both unexpectedly difficult, both coming by tight 1-0 matches. On the other hand, the team hasn’t lost in 28 matches and has outscored opponents 93-17 in that span. So how bad can things be? The team’s next round of friendlies comes in January.
• There’s less optimism about the United States men’s national team, which got hammered 3-0 by England’s second string on Thursday. USMNT fans have been hoping that the past year has given a young team time to grow into a good squad, but the performance against England seems to indicate that the U.S. is just as far away from success as it has ever been.
• Brexit means … problems for the Premier League? A report in the Times of London suggests that, as part of Brexit planning, England’s Football Association will push the Premier League to cut the number of non-English players on their 25-man squads to 12 from 17. The governing body might otherwise require Premier League teams to obtain work permits for all foreign players. Given onerous qualifying criteria, many players might not get permits and would have to leave.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
U-17 Women’s World Cup: United States vs. North Korea, 11 a.m. Saturday, FS2. You might think that the U.S. dominance at the senior level would extend to youth levels, but you’d be wrong. The U-17 team failed to qualify for two of the past four of these every-other-year events and didn’t make it out of the group stage in the other two. North Korea, meanwhile, is the reigning champion. Can the Americans prevail?
Writer Jon Marthaler gives you a recap of recent events and previews the week ahead. • firstname.lastname@example.org