Ajax’s run to the 2019 UEFA Champions’ League semi-final – European football’s premier club-cup competition – provided a welcome dose of nostalgia for those who remember the glory-days of Johan Cruyff in the 1970s and the Champions’ League winning team of 1995. However, in recent years, football clubs with rich histories such as Ajax, Feyenoord, Anderlecht and Club Brugge have generally struggled to reach the latter stages of the Champions’ League. Clubs from the Belgian Pro League and the Dutch Eredivisie find it difficult to compete financially with their counterparts in European football’s biggest leagues where revenues from broadcast deals and other commercial channels are much higher. As a result, it has become common for many of the Benelux clubs’ best players to move abroad in order to fulfil their footballing and financial ambitions.
As both the Belgian and Dutch footballing authorities seek to arrest this trend, recent reports indicate that they are considering a merger of the Eredivisie and Pro League to create a so-called “BeNeLiga”. According to the KNVB (the Dutch football association), a feasibility study commissioned by the two leagues suggests that a combined league could result in a much more valuable competition (article in Dutch). The notion of a transnational league is not new. Indeed, three years ago clubs from Belgium and the Netherlands were reportedly part of exploratory discussions with some Scandinavian and Scottish teams around the formation of a breakaway league. While the so-called “Atlantic League” never materialised, it is apparent that Benelux clubs and the Benelux footballing authorities recognise their existing model is likely to lead to ongoing decline relative to their European neighbours.
The practicalities of any such deal between the two leagues would doubtless require a significant amount of time and effort from a commercial and logistical standpoint. In particular, the respective leagues’ broadcast deals would need to be brought to an end concurrently to allow for the negotiation of fresh agreements for the new league. The same would apply to any sponsorship contracts the two leagues have in place. If the idea of a merger were to gain any real traction, it is likely that the administrative structure of the combined competition would also be subject to extensive negotiation. Indeed, according to the KNVB (article in Dutch), the second phase of the footballing authorities’ feasibility study will focus on the format of the proposed competition, amongst other matters.
What about smaller clubs?
Perhaps the most contentious issue would be the decision as to which clubs would form part of the top-tier of the combined league structure. Clubs such as Feyenoord and Anderlecht may not be able to compete at the top level of European football, but their revenues still dwarf those of many teams competing at the lower end of the Eredivisie and Pro League. The prospect of a merger may not be quite so appealing for smaller clubs who could find themselves with even less income, depending on how the league is structured and how broadcast revenues are distributed. In this context, Belgian striker Cyriel Dessers suggested that a combined cup-competition could be a less disruptive alternative for the two leagues’ smaller clubs and could provide a useful test-case for a BeNeLiga.
Of course, a BeNeLiga would also need the blessing of UEFA, as well as other stakeholders. When similar rumours emerged last year, UEFA stated that a transnational competition “could be a strategic development in some European regions” indicating that “[a]ny such idea or proposal would only be discussed by UEFA if submitted by its national associations, with their clubs and leagues.” UEFA’s comments were understandably non-committal, but it is worth noting that UEFA did not dismiss the prospect of a merger outright. UEFA has not yet made a statement in relation the latest reports of a BeNeLiga, but, considering UEFA’s previous comments, it would appear that any merger would need broad-based support from the majority of stakeholders in order to obtain UEFA’s blessing. The likes of PSV Eindhoven and Club Brugge would be particularly interested in how many Champions League qualifying places UEFA would allot to the combined competition.
For now, it would appear that discussions between the two leagues are at a relatively early stage and so a merger is not imminent. However, it seems increasingly likely that leagues of a similar ilk to the Eredivisie and the Pro League will give serious consideration to combined competitions with their peers as a means of generating greater broadcast and commercial revenues. In turn, Belgian and Dutch clubs will hope that increased revenues will enable them to compete regularly at European football’s top table once again.