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Why the fight over the European Super League isn’t over

One thing to start: Last week the Scoreboard team participated in a virtual event to discuss how long the boom in sports investing will last. Subscribers can watch a replay here exclusively here.

Is women’s football the next big investment opportunity? That’s been on my mind ever since England’s Lionesses scored eight times against Norway, a devastating scoreline in Uefa’s Euro 2022 and I defy anyone not to feel the buzz from women’s football right now.

The cheer doesn’t extend to the business of golf. Tensions were high this week after it emerged that the US Justice Department is investigating the PGA Tours response to the challenge from Saudi-backed LIV Golf. Could it all end up in the hands of lawyers? Speaking of which, our first item centres on the very real legal drama engulfing European football governing body Uefa amid its battle against the European Super League. The takeaway? New challengers are questioning the sport’s status quo. We also have a special dispatch from FT colleagues Kate Beioley and Anna Gross on why sports broadcasters are feeling the heat. Do read on — Samuel Agini, Sports Business Reporter

The fight over the European Super League isn’t over

ESL: fighting on © FT montage; AFP, UEFA via Getty

A landmark case at the European Union’s top court could change football forever.

Remember how quickly the breakaway European Super League unravelled last year after fans, politicians and rivals gunned it down? The fight isn’t over yet.

Quick recap: 12 elite European clubs, including Spain’s Real Madrid, FC Barcelona and Italy’s Juventus declared they were forming a tournament of their own. But the ESL appeared to be dead in the water after the nine other founders, including US-owned English giants Liverpool and Manchester United backed out.

The ESL would have employed traits more commonly associated with American sports, including permanent slots for its members and caps on player salaries, causing uproar across the rest of football.

But the ESL is taking the fight to European football’s governing body, Uefa, which runs the Champions League, Europe’s pre-eminent club tournament, and world governing body Fifa, organiser of the World Cup.

Lawyers exchanged barbs in the EU Court of Justice this week.

The ESL homed on on Uefa’s alleged “conflict of interest” as a governing body that also organises tournaments. Why would it authorise a competitor?

The comeback? The breakaway dozen’s proposal for a closed league was “a textbook example of a cartel”, according to Uefa. They want to “have their cake and eat it”.

At stake is the distribution of money across the sport, and the existing league and tournament structures at national and Europe-wide level. 

“A win for the clubs may well lead to a far more fragmented football landscape, with rival tournaments being established by leading clubs supported by private equity partners, partially closed leagues being introduced and a radical new global calendar being adopted,” said Darren Bailey, a consultant at law firm Charles Russell Speechlys.

“It may well also turbo charge the Americanisation of the European model of sport, posing an existential threat to fundamental elements of the European model, such as promotion and relegations,” he added.

Are sports broadcasters ripping off their freelance workers?

Lights, camera, price-fixing probe © Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images

Competition authorities have broadcasters Sky, ITV, BT and others in their sights in a major price-fixing probe over the rates they pay to freelancers working on televised sport — and the cost of living crisis only magnifies the stakes.

The UK Competition and Markets Authority thinks the massive ecosystem of camera operators, sound engineers, and unit managers who cover sports events are being ripped off.

Those workers earn a flat rate, regardless of what event they’re covering or where. And Sky, ITV and their rivals all pay around the same — a rate that has not kept up with inflation.

One camera operator told the Financial Times: “Everyone wants the rates to go up and we’d love it for [broadcasters] to compete more . . . as soon as one jumps they all jump . . . in seven years [the day rate] has gone up £40 [to £400].”

Pay is an important issue for the regulator, particularly in light of the cost of living crisis. The freelance workers covering live events travel huge distances and pay for it out of their fixed day rate, translating into an effective pay cut when the soaring cost of fuel is taken into account. 

The CMA said this week it had “reasonable grounds” to suspect at least one breach of competition law.

“I’ve always assumed that the broadcasters match the rate increases in order to stay competitive and retain good freelancers,” said one freelance sound engineer who asked to remain anonymous in case it affected his ability to get work in the future. “I am very interested to learn about the possibility of rate fixing though.”

“If the CMA’s concerns are borne out, these practices could have depressed wages for freelance workers, which is a big concern in today’s cost of living crisis,” Geradin Partners competition lawyer Stijn Huijts told Scoreboard. 

The CMA raided the offices of IMG Media, which operates Premier League Productions with the English Premier League. BT was also raided — BT Sport screens the Uefa Champions League, Europe’s most prestigious club competition.

“Competition authorities can be expected to pursue wage-fixing cartels and no-poach agreements like hawks in the context of scarce labour resources and pressure to increase wages,” according to Huijts. “We can certainly expect more similar investigations in the near future.”

Highlights

LIV’s Dustin Johnson: at the Open © Gerald Herbert/AP
  • Ahead of the 150th anniversary of The Open at St Andrews, the emergence of an antitrust probe against the US PGA Tour cast a shadow over golf. The US Justice Department is investigating the Tour’s response to Saudi-backed rival LIV Golf.

  • The organiser of the Champions League, Europe’s most prestigious football club tournament, wants to at least double the value of its US broadcast rights, in the next test of the sport’s appeal stateside. Bids could exceed $2bn for the six-year deal.

  • Bernie Ecclestone, the former Formula One supremo, faces charges over an alleged failure to declare more than £400mn of overseas assets to UK tax authorities.

  • DAZN, the sports streaming group owned by billionaire Leonard Blavatnik, is in talks to acquire smaller rival Eleven Sports, which was founded by Italian entrepreneur and Leeds United Football Club owner Andrea Radrizzani. Broadcasters are battling to add content to their streaming platforms to entice subscribers.

  • The French Senate rejected government claims that an influx of football fans with fake or no tickets were the main cause of overcrowding and clashes with police that marred the Champions League final in Paris.

  • Just how did John McEnroe go from “Superbrat” to revered elder statesman? Read the FT’s review of a new documentary that attempts to answer that very question about one of the all-time tennis greats. 

Final Whistle

Novak Djokovic: don’t forget the flowers © @Wimbledon

We’ve all forgotten special occasions before, even without the distraction of playing in a Wimbledon final. But Novak Djokovic actually did overcome Australian rival Nick Kyrgios on his wedding anniversary. Still, Jelena needn’t have worried that her Serbian tennis ace husband would let it slip his mind. BBC presenter Sue Barker was on hand to remind Djoko after he’d collected the trophy. “I’m gonna buy you flowers after this,” he quipped. Watch the on-court exchange here.

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