The future’s bright, the future’s Oranje – and Belgium?
03/06/2021

Belgium’s Pro League clubs caught much of the football world by surprise when they announced in March that they had “unanimous support to giving the possible realization of the Beneleague every opportunity”. But this was just the latest step in a process that has been simmering in the background of Dutch and Belgian football since the summer of 2019. The proposed joint Dutch-Belgian league, commonly referred to as the BeNeLiga (or the BeNeLeague), sounded like a done deal based on some media reports in response to the March announcement. However, there are still hurdles to clear and stakeholders to convince.

In this post, we take a look at where the BeNeLiga project stands today in its path towards becoming reality.

An offer you can’t refuse

The full details as to how the BeNeLiga will be structured are something of an open secret. They have not been published but have been widely reported in the media. The proposal is a single league made up of 18 clubs, 10 from the Netherlands and 8 from Belgium, in place of the Dutch Eredivisie and the Belgian 1A Pro League. The Netherlands and Belgium would each continue to have their own domestic ‘second-flight’ league. However, details on the competition structure are yet to be determined. In particular, the desire to maintain the same 10-8 split every season is liable to complicate the process of promotion and relegation.

Arguably the largest unknown is in relation to the “European tickets” for entry into UEFA club competitions. At the outset of the 2020/21 season, the Netherlands and Belgium each have 5 European tickets. England, Germany, Italy and Spain have the most, with 7 each. The BeNeLiga will not retain 10 European tickets. How many will they retain? How far will those tickets be upgraded for additional entries into the UEFA Champions League or to avoid cumbersome qualifying rounds each pre-season?

Why change? Why now?

Proposals for cross-border leagues have proliferated in recent years. FIFA has responded with a willingness to be “open to discussions”, in particular to the suggestion of a North American tie-up between Major League Soccer (featuring clubs from the U.S. and Canada) and the Mexican Liga MX. An “All-Island League” between clubs from Ireland and Northern Ireland is also being mooted. But, as Major League Soccer demonstrates, this is not a novel concept. The English football pyramid also includes Welsh clubs, including Swansea City A.F.C. and Cardiff City F.C. in the EFL Championship.

The motivation now is driven by the “big five” leagues: the Premier League (England), La Liga (Spain), the Bundesliga (Germany), Serie A (Italy) and Ligue 1 (France). As these five leagues dominate a large share of the broadcasting market, they possess the revenues to thrive in the player transfer market and UEFA club competitions. The incoming UEFA Europa Conference League and the proposed expansion of the UEFA Champions League from the 2024/25 season are both intended (at least in part) to help grow the revenue generated by UEFA and distributed to clubs. But other domestic leagues are looking to grow to a size that can compete with the “big five”. For this reason, some see the BeNeLiga as an essential development for Dutch and Belgian football. As with any business, if you cannot grow organically, a merger becomes another means to quickly achieve that growth. There is still no consensus, however, as to whether this is a merger of equals or one league has more to gain than the other. But the BeNeLiga project is setting out to create the sixth biggest league in Europe: if you cannot beat them, join them.

Managing stakeholders: trying to satisfy everyone

A large part of the rationale behind the BeNeLiga project is the potential growth in revenue from broadcasting deals. Deloitte has reportedly projected that the BeNeLiga will raise between EUR 250 million and EUR 400 million per season. But broadcasters have not publicly indicated how much more valuable they would consider the BeNeLiga to be. COVID-19 has also removed the assumption that consideration for broadcasting rights deals will continue on an upwards trajectory, as demonstrated by rights tenders (or lack thereof) in France, Italy and England. The Eredivisie currently receives between EUR 80 million and EUR 100 million per season from ESPN (as part of a 12-year deal entered into with FOX in 2012). Eleven Sports entered into a five-year deal in June 2020 with the entire two-tier Pro League worth about EUR 103 million per season. If the advent of the BeNeLiga does not grow the pie much further, smaller clubs will be left to question their incentive to approve the reduced likelihood of participating in UEFA club competitions and the increased likelihood of facing relegation to the Eerste Divisie or the 1B Pro League. But if these projections could be achieved, it will be a gamechanger for the finances of Dutch and Belgian football clubs.

While the Pro League announcement portrayed Belgium’s 24 professional clubs as united in support of the BeNeLiga, there have been widespread reports of scepticism from some Belgian clubs and a wait-and-see attitude from many Dutch clubs. Questions remain as to how the details of the BeNeLiga structure will be ironed out and how everyone will be left satisfied – including in dividing the spoils between Dutch and Belgian clubs.

While club supporters have not been part of the formal BeNeLiga discussions, fan surveys suggest that they are also yet to be convinced. The successful deployment of fan protest in response to The Super League may also embolden Dutch and Belgian fans to resist any proposal that they feel comes too greatly at their expense. An away-day from Bruges to Groningen comes in at a 800km round-trip. It remains to be seen whether clubs will be prepared to risk the wrath of those supporters hostile to the prospect of a full day on the road every weekend.

Every vote counts

From a Dutch perspective, in order for the BeNeLiga to go ahead, both the Eredivisie and the Dutch football association, the KNVB, must approve the proposal. This would require a five-sixths majority vote among the Eredivisie clubs. In other words, the BeNeLiga only becomes a viable prospect if at least 15 of the 18 Eredivisie clubs are in favour. In addition, the KNVB has indicated that it expects both its Federal Assembly and its General Meeting of Professional Football Clubs to vote on the proposal. Between them, these two bodies represent professional football clubs from the Eredivisie and the Eerste Divisie, amateur football clubs and players and coaches from the professional clubs.

From a Belgian perspective, both the Pro League and the Belgian football association, the KBVB, must approve the BeNeLiga proposal for it to proceed. The General Assembly of the Pro League weights votes in favour of the top 5 clubs and the 1A Pro League clubs, but with an apparent two-thirds majority voting threshold. If the KBVB determines that both its Board of Directors and its General Assembly will vote, there will be two further bodies to vote on the BeNeLiga. Both divide representation among the Pro League, the two bodies responsible for amateur football in the Francophone and Flemish regions of Belgium (Association des Clubs Francophones de Football and Voetbal Vlaanderen respectively) as well as independent members.

If they get the votes from the leagues and associations, UEFA will still stand as the final arbiter for the BeNeLiga. The UEFA Statutes confer on UEFA ultimate authority over any combinations, alliances and other issues between UEFA members. Though UEFA’s views may well shape the BeNeLiga discussions long before a request for final approval arrives in its mailbox. It has been reported that the “big 11” clubs leading the BeNeLiga project would be guaranteed a place in the inaugural BeNeLiga season, with the remaining places determined by league position across recent seasons. UEFA will first need to determine whether this could be said to infringe its principle that entry into competitions must be determined on sporting merit. Its decision on the allocation of European tickets for UEFA club competitions will also have an impact on the attractiveness of the BeNeLiga package on offer to the clubs.

Comment

If the BeNeLiga is to materialise, it will benefit from the approval of a vast swathe of the football community in both the Netherlands and Belgium. In contrast to the approach adopted for The Super League, it is only intended to be launched with UEFA’s blessing. Improved tickets in the UEFA sweepstakes will be among the prizes that the BeNeLiga hopes to offer its clubs. However, to date the BeNeLiga project has been largely led by the biggest clubs in the Netherlands and Belgium. The economics of smaller clubs may come to decide whether there are enough votes in support. Can the trickle-down economics of improved revenue from broadcasting deals and solidarity payments outweigh the prestige of top-flight football and the shop window that it offers those clubs whose prime source of revenue is the sale of their players?

With the existing broadcasting deals for the Dutch Eredivisie and the Belgian Pro League expiring after the 2024/25 season, this either offers proponents of the BeNeLiga breathing room or a stay of execution. There are a few more years to advance the BeNeLiga project in preparation for a proposed start for the 2025/26 season. If the time comes to renew the existing broadcasting deals and the BeNeLiga is not yet a viable alternative, it may find itself kicked into the long grass. But the idea of the BeNeLiga has been floated for many years and similar constructs have come to fruition in other sports; the economics of the football industry may well make its return inevitable.

Zie ook : Linklaters LLP

[+ http://www.linklaters.com]


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