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How a European Super League could happen

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It’s probably not a coincidence that reports of a breakaway European Super League resurfaced just as the Champions League returns. This is the classic story that won’t go away and, at its heart, is about pitting the world’s biggest football clubs against each other on a regular basis, or, at least, a more regular basis than the Champions League can offer.

Why play Burnley twice a year when you can play Barcelona instead, all the while earning more money? And if you follow the U.S. major league blueprint — a closed league with no promotion and relegation, maybe a salary cap — you’re on to a guaranteed money-spinner.

Talk of a Super League has been around since the 1990s and, with the sport globalized like never before, it has plenty of financial appeal to the lucky few who get to be a part of it. But that is all the Super League has been so far — an idea, and almost nobody is willing to push the idea in public. As one executive told ESPN, “If it happens in our lifetime, it’s going to happen now.”

Why now? Because the pandemic is putting massive financial pressure on the sport. Let’s dig into the issue.

So what brought back the idea of a Super League to replace the Champions League this time?

Reports in two outlets that don’t usually deal in sport. Spanish digital business website Voz Populi wrote Tuesday morning that at least 18 European clubs were planning an NBA-style pan-European league that would effectively replace the Champions League as early as 2022.

A few hours later, Sky News reported essentially the same story with the added nugget that JP Morgan Chase was in talks to provide some $6 billion in debt financing.

The fact that both stories come from business reporters is relevant. It suggests that the information wasn’t leaked by clubs hypothetically involved but rather from those trying to finance it.

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Like who?

Private equity, funds, investors, anybody sitting on large piles of money who needs something to invest in during the pandemic. On the flip side, COVID-19 has hit hard and many clubs are starved for cash, mainly because of the way they’re run: every penny that goes in usually goes back out, so everyone, to varying degrees is facing cash flow issues now that broadcasters and sponsors are demanding rebates and stadiums aren’t fully open to fans.

UEFA, which organizes the Champions League and Europa League, hasn’t been spared either. They told clubs on Monday that nearly $600 million has been lost due to the pandemic and payouts to clubs will be reduced over the next five seasons. Folks are left squabbling over what’s left of the pie, with bigger clubs less willing to share.

Hence, the project “Big Picture” fiasco, a radical plan to overhaul English football that would see control over the Premier League switch to the top teams.

But if the biggest clubs break away and form their own competition, surely they can sell their own TV and commercial rights? Why would they need private equity partners to bankroll them?

Because you can’t set up a league and sell rights overnight. It takes time. And because clubs are so dependent on these revenues, they feel safer with a partner effectively guaranteeing the money over the first few seasons.

What’s FIFA’s role in all this?

FIFA issued a statement saying it “did not wish to comment and participate in any speculation about topics which come up every now and then” and said there were structures and frameworks to deal with them on a national, European and global level.

Not exactly a denial …

Not an endorsement, either. If you’re a bit cynical, they’re adopting a “wait and see” approach. What’s clear is that making a break away Super League work is easier with FIFA’s backing.

Why is that?

Ultimately, FIFA licenses the game, runs the international transfer market and international competitions such as the World Cup. If you set up a rogue league outside FIFA’s umbrella, FIFA can ban your players from the World Cup, ban your clubs from the Club World Cup (no biggie right now, but down the road, that competition could grow into something more important) and ban your players from transferring to other clubs. It can also ask your national federation to kick you out of your league and, if they don’t do it, suspend them.

So yeah, it’s not impossible to go rogue, but it’s very difficult.

Why would FIFA back this? Hasn’t FIFA president, Gianni Infantino, talked about wanting to grow the game in every part of the world, not just Europe?

That’s a good question. The relationship between FIFA and UEFA (and CONMEBOL) is not great. One sticking point is Infantino’s plan for a biennial Club World Cup with 24 (or 32) teams, which could threaten UEFA’s Champions League.

There’s a scenario where you put together a series of closed continental super leagues beyond Europe, under FIFA’s auspices, and the winners face off in the Club World Cup. For example, there’s long been talk of an MLS / Liga MX merger, which would cover North America. Infantino has discussed how the best way for Africa to retain talent and grow the game was a pan-African Super League. You could easily replicate this in South America, possibly Asia too.

There’s no mystery about who would love to see this: Real Madrid president Florentino Perez. He convened a meeting of clubs from around the world about a year ago and invited Infantino (but not, significantly, confederation heads). Could there be a bunch of continental super leagues with the top teams playing in a FIFA Club World Cup?

Do you think Infantino would back a European Super League?

We’re in the realm of speculation here, but if he did, it would be a huge gamble, because it would instantly alienate UEFA and CONMEBOL at a minimum. And his support elsewhere, outside of CONCACAF, isn’t rock-solid. He’d have to sell member nations on the idea that this is part of some kind of global effort to promote and develop the sport across the world. That’s a big ask, given he’s up for re-election in 2023.

What about UEFA? Surely a European Super League would gut the Champions League? And what about the domestic leagues?

They’re dismissing the idea as hot air, for now. They say the principles of solidarity, promotion, relegation and open leagues are non-negotiable and that a super league would inevitably become boring. But they’ve got to be a little nervous. Every few years, bigger clubs demand more of the pie and they want the pie to grow (which is why we’ll likely get four more Champions League group stage games in 2024).

As for the domestic leagues, it’s obviously a threat. Even if, say, Real Madrid was allowed to play in both La Liga and a Super League, it’s obvious what would be prioritized. Not to mention the fact that an 18-team Super League, plus playoffs, plus a 20-team Liga would put the number of club fixtures north of 80 (and that’s without counting domestic cup competitions). It’s simply not sustainable.

And the clubs? Real Madrid, Liverpool and Manchester United are thought to be driving this?

They’re not commenting officially, but it’s pretty clear that they’re listening to what’s put in front of them. We’re in a situation of massive uncertainty and it makes sense to at least consider every option. As we saw with Project Big Picture, even in the Premier League — the most stable and lucrative domestic competition — they’re not averse to shaking things up if it benefits them.

That said, apart from perhaps Real Madrid — Florentino has long been open about his vision — most of the others need to be careful, for different reasons. Juventus and PSG sit on UEFA’s Executive Committee as representatives of the European Clubs Association. They need to be loyal, at least outwardly to UEFA. Bayern and Borussia Dortmund are likely to stay quiet as well, because of the fan-driven culture in Germany and the potential viciousness of a backlash.

There would likely be opposition in England, though it’s not clear how much some of these owners would care and you could see how they might sell it to their supporters. After all, the Premier League itself was founded in 1992 by breaking away from the Football League and every Big Six club has a foreign-based owner who isn’t necessarily wed to the traditional structure.

I think they’re basically watching and waiting. They know they’ll be invited along if it happens, but aren’t going to go out on a limb to make it happen. If you don’t like the Super League idea, there’s some comfort in that, because if they don’t come out and back it, it’s unlikely to happen.

But it’s also in their interest to make this threat real.

Why?

Because there is so much at stake in the next 18 months. The International Match Calendar runs out in 2024. The Champions League structure — and revenue allocation — is up for discussion. So is the structure of the domestic leagues. They are a part of these discussions and, if the clubs that back a Super League can put together a credible threat, they’ll have more clout. The problem is that for the threat to be credible, they have to come out in the open. The same applies to FIFA.

We’ve been here before, by the way, in European basketball. In 2000, a number of major clubs split from FIBA, the governing body of basketball, and set up their own competition, the EuroLeague. We even had competing European tournaments for a season. Eventually they reached a compromise and the EuroLeague today is a competition that is essentially run by a small number of clubs who share the revenue and are guaranteed most of the spots. Commercially, it’s been hugely successful.

So what’s going to happen?

If you want me to speculate, I will. Realistically, for this to occur, you’d need three things: FIFA’s involvement, clubs to come out in the open and a whole load of private equity cash.

I’m not sure you’ll get all three to fall into place, certainly not as neatly and decisively as is needed for this to get off the ground. But if you start hearing clubs other than Real Madrid talk about how “nothing is off the table” and “we’re exploring all options”, then be prepared for a fight.

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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