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European Football Explained

I’m going to take a short amount of space here to give my best attempt at an explanation of the structure of the European football scene. The future of MLS is intertwined with the future of European football. MLS is (or will be) competition for the European game. MLS has a significant opportunity over the next decade or two to become the number two soccer league in the world. In order to understand MLS’ future we must try to understand the game in Europe.

Explaining European football to American sports fans is difficult. And that’s not just because all the games end in a tie. The structure of European football leagues and the multiplicity of competitions which teams simultaneously compete in is confusing. Confusing because it is an antiquated model which does not reflect the political and sporting realities of the world today. Confusing because it is so very, well, European.

Promotion and Relegation

At the heart of the European football system is a concept known as Promotion and Relegation. Promotion and Relegation exists because there are no league “franchises” as we think of them here in the States. There are only soccer “clubs” who compete in the league that they are in that season. If they do particularly well in that league (top three), the club can be Promoted up to a better league. If the club does poorly (bottom three), it can be Relegated down to a lower level league.

In England for example, football clubs are divided into two leagues, the Premier League and The Football League (England’s second tier league, consisting of three levels of competition), both of which fall under the jurisdiction of a governing body known as the FA. The Premier League itself is a corporation in which the 20 member clubs act as shareholders.

Every year, the top three teams in The Football League are promoted to the Premier League and the bottom three teams in the Premier League are relegated to the top level of the Football League.

In American English: Imagine a scenario where Major League Baseball had no association with the teams in Minor League baseball. A scenario where Farm Clubs were independent entities whose ultimate goal was to compete in MLB. At the end of every season, the three worst teams in MLB would be “relegated” to Triple A and the three best teams in Triple A would be “promoted” to compete in MLB the next season. Promotion and relegation would be in place all they way through the baseball system. Theoretically, a rich owner could build a stadium in New York and start that team out in Class A ball and after four years, have a third New York team competing in MLB.

In this scenario, the Minor League teams would still end up doing the majority of developing of young talent. Teams like the Iowa Cubs wouldn’t have the revenue (television or gate) to keep their young talent after they reach a certain quality. Eventually the Iowa Cubs would decide to sell their rights to a future star to the highest bidder.

That aspect of the system isn’t really all that different than the Kansas City Royals inability to keep the Yankees from signing their best players. Its just that much more pronounced.

This Promotion and Relegation system occurs within each country’s individual leagues. If a team rises to the top of a country’s league, they earn entry into the UEFA Champions League for the next season. When the next season rolls around, the club will compete in both the top league in its respective country and in the Champions League. Champions League is a knockout tournament in which the winner will play a maximum of 15 games.

In American English: There really is no American equivalent of the Champions League because there doesn’t need to be. The Champions League exists because the antiquated European league system is based on nationality. Champions League exists to fill a void in the national league structure which results in lower quality football.

Imagine if instead of MLB being one league, it was actually five or ten distinct leagues located regionally within the United States.

Since there wouldn’t be enough teams in just MLB to create 5 separate leagues, you would have to bring Triple A teams into your league. The Iowa Cubs would be in the same league as the Chicago Cubs. The Scranton Wilkes-Barre Yankees would be competing against the Yankees and the Red Sox.

One of these baseball leagues might consist of the following teams: Cubs, Cards, Astros, Reds, Brewers, Pirates and Royals, 10 Triple A quality teams and 3 Double A quality teams. Every year, the 3 Double A quality teams would be relegated and 3 new Double A quality teams would be promoted into the league.

The Cubs would spend most of their season playing games against the likes of the Iowa Cubs, the Omaha Royals and the Hackensack Bulls. Only for a few games a year, during the World Series (I.e., Champions League), would the Cubs and Cards consistently play Major League caliber teams from other leagues.

It is this facet which makes the UEFA Champions League such a big deal in Europe and throughout the world. At most, a European country’s league games consist of five Major League quality teams playing minor league quality opponents. Only in Champions League are all teams of Major League quality.

One simplistic way to gauge quality of competition within a sports league is the number of teams in the league. The Big Four sports leagues in the United States all have about thirty teams in them. There are 100 teams in the English, Italian, German and Spanish and French first divisions alone.

Put another way? Every year Manchester United plays about 10 Premier League games (out of 38) which make the Nebraska Cornfuskers non-conference football schedule look difficult. Where a loss would be the equivalent of Appalachian St. over Michigan.

Team Revenue ($m)
Real Madrid $576
Manchester United $512
FC Barcelona $487
Bayern Munich $465
Chelsea $422
Arsenal $349
Liverpool $332
AC Milan $330
AS Roma $276
Internazionale $272
Juventus $264
Olympique Lyonnais $245
Schalke 04 $234
Tottenham Hotspur $228
Hamburger SV $202
Olympique de Marseille $200
Newcastle United $198
Borussia Dortmund $183
Werder Bremen $177
VfB Stuttgart $176
Manchester City $164
Everton 151
Premiership avg.
Aston Villa $150
Celtic $145
Rangers $128
Bundesliga avg.
La Liga avg.
Serie A avg.
League avg.
Championship avg.
MLS $13

And in many ways, the best comparison of the quality of competition in European football to an American sport is college football. College football’s use of a Conference system, its multitude of teams of varying quality and the reinforcing tendency of good college football teams to stay good as a result of fan $upport are all very similar to European football.

Since 1992, 42 clubs have competed in the Premier League but only four have won the title: Manchester United, Blackburn Rovers, Arsenal, and Chelsea.

Real Madrid and Barcelona have combined for 21 of the last 24 La Liga titles.

Seeing Bayern Munich at the top of the German Bundesliga year after year is not all that much unlike seeing Ohio State and Michigan perennially at the top of the Big Ten or USC dominating the Pac-Ten. Money, fan support, superior facilities and a history of success result in a virtuous cycle in which the rich get richer.

The twenty five richest football clubs in Europe include 9 from England, 6 from Germany, 4 from Italy, 2 from Spain, 2 from France and 2 from Scotland.

From here on out, I will refer to these 25 clubs as the “Massive Clubs.” Please do not take this list literally. My purpose is not to identify the top European football clubs, 25 or otherwise. My purpose is simply to illustrate that there are clear tiers of clubs in Europe. At the top of those tiers, there is a group of clubs that stand above the rest, both in their history and their ambitions for the future.

For a while, some of those clubs identified themselves by the moniker G-14. I am using the loosely defined phrase Massive Clubs simply because I do not want to engage in an in depth discussion of European football politics.

What the lay sports fan simply needs to understand is that there is a group of clubs which have Pan-European ambitions. Ambitions that, for reasons laid out below, will ultimately cause them to form a coalition to fend off competition from MLS.

University Football Revenues
Big Ten (Bundesliga)
Ohio State Univ. $51 mil.
Univ. of Michigan $46 mil.
Penn State
Univ. of Wisconsin $34 mil.
Univ. of Iowa $29 mil.
Michigan State $29 mil.
Purdue Univ. $24 mil.
Univ. of Illinois $18 mil.
Univ. of Minnesota $15 mil.
Indiana Univ. $13 mil.
SEC (Premiership)
Univ. of Georgia $50 mil.
Univ. of Florida $43 mil.
Univ. of Alabama $42 mil.
Auburn Univ. $40 mil.
Louisiana State Univ. $40 mil.
Univ. of Tennessee $29 mil.
Univ. of Arkansas $28 mil.
Univ. of Kentucky $19 mil.
Univ. of South Carolina $17 mil.
Univ. of Mississippi $15 mil.
Mississippi State $9 mil.
Pac-10 (La Liga)
Univ. of Washington $27 mil.
Oregon State $22 mil.
UCLA $18 mil.
Arizona State $18 mil.
Univ. California $17 mil.
Univ. of Oregon $16 mil.
Univ. of Arizona $14 mil.
Washington State $9 mil.
Big Twelve (Serie A)
Univ. of Texas $53 mil.
Texas A&M Univ. $38 mil.
Oklahoma $33 mil.
Univ. of Colorado $22 mil.
Univ. of Nebraska $20 mil.
Kansas State Univ. $19 mil.
Texas Tech Univ. $19 mil.
Univ. of Missouri $15 mil.
Iowa State Univ. $11 mil.
Univ. of Kansas $9 mil.
Big East (Ligue 1)
West Virginia Univ. $17 mil.
Univ. of Louisville $11 mil.
Rutgers $10 mil.
Univ. of Connecticut $9 mil.
Univ. of South Florida $5 mil.
Univ. of Cincinnati $5 mil.
ACC (Eredivisie)
Virginia Tech Univ. $25 mil.
Clemson Univ. $22 mil.
Florida State Univ. $18 mil.
Univ. of North Carolina $17 mil.
Univ. of Virginia $17 mil.
North Carolina State Univ. $16 mil.
Georgia Tech $10 mil.
Univ. of Maryland $9 mil.
Notre Dame (Celtic) $41 mil.
Univ. of Utah (Rangers) $11 mil.
Fresno State
Boise State

Compare that to this second table which provides revenue generated by selected football programs at the BCS conference schools and a couple of wanna-bes.

  • Like European football, college football is dominated by the big programs both financially and on the field.
  • Competition within leagues or conferences is tiered into the haves, the have-nots, and those that consider third place to be a very successful season.
  • Competition between leagues occurs occasionally, and when the conference leaders play it is a big deal.
Kaka in the News

Given the recent news regarding Real Madrid’s signing of both Kaka and Christiano Ronaldo for $223 million, I thought that here might be the appropriate place to address questions.

Q: How much will they sign Dudu and Poopoo for?

A: Ha. Not that question.

Transfer Fees

When a footballer is under contract with a club, he can only leave if the club agrees to terminate this contract. In the United States’ sports leagues, players are usually traded for other players.

In European football, the club to whom the player is transferring will usually pay cashy-money to the club who owns the player’s contract. This is known as the ‘transfer fee’. (Some times a lesser player will be combined with cash to meet the transfer amount.)

In this case, the $223 million goes to AC Milan ($92 million) and Manchester United ($131 million) in exchange for them cancelling their contracts with the players. The players are unlikely to see any of that money. They will still need to come to personal terms with Real Madrid on a new contract.

Why In the World Would They Agree to the Transfer?

Manchester United had revenues of $512 million in 2007, second only to Real Madrid. AC Milan were the highest earning club in Italy. From an American sporting perspective, the transfers of Kaka and Ronaldo to Real Madrid are ludicrous.

Why would they agree to it? Debt.

Kaka flat out stated that one of the reason that he was persuaded to leave Milan is that the transfer fee would help the team pay off some of the debt it is struggling with.

When the Glazers bought Man U for £828 million in 2005 they borrowed £556 million against the club. Since then, the debt has spiraled to $1.1 billion . Last year the club had an operating profit of £66 million. That wasn’t enough to pay all the interest on the loans however, and Man U’s debt level increased by £33 million.

Real Madrid is in somewhat better shape. Real Madrid has the sport’s richest domestic TV deal: $223 million a season. Manchester United has total media revenues of £90.4 million. In the past, Real Madrid has also received galactico sized low-interest loans from the Spanish government.

These are the World’s Best Players

Kaka and Ronaldo are two of the three or four best players in the world today. Man U and Milan are selling them to a rival to pay down debt.

Imagine Cleveland selling Lebron to the Knicks for cash to pay off debt.

Imagine the Patriots selling Brady to the Cowboys for cash to pay off debt.

Imagine the Red Sox selling Big Papi to the Yankees…nevermind. You get the idea.


Jesus walked on water
Ronaldo dived on land

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