How to avoid the downgrading of French football?

Tribune: French football is a two-sided medal. On one side is the French team, reigning world champion, led by a very competent coach and relying on talented players playing almost exclusively in the four biggest world championships (Germany, England, Spain, Italy). On the other is a national championship in crisis, shaken by the defection of its new broadcaster (MediaPro) and outclassed in European competitions.

It is not useful to list here the French defeats in recent Champions League or Europa League matches. Just take a look at the starving list of French clubs in the European Cup (2 wins out of 153 European Cups distributed) to measure the extent of the French shortcomings. France nevertheless remains 5th to the UEFA Index, driven by what might be called “ the Parisian illusion “. Indeed, since 2011, the French results in European Cups have been driven by the performances of Paris Saint Germain. However, unlike the previous decade when the flagship club relied on an endogenous development model (that built by Jean-Michel Aulas at Olympique Lyonnais), the success of the major club in the decade 2010-2020 is based on exogenous financing: the windfall of Qatari gas dollars. Admittedly, the initial Qatari investment generates a virtuous circle of resource capture (the worldwide notoriety of the “Paris Saint Germain” brand now allows the club to generate revenue from derivative products and advertising at an unprecedented level. by a French club), but this random irruption of the Qatari jackpot since 2011 masks a slow depreciation of national football.

In defense of the successive leaders of the Professional Football League (LFP), governing a group of 42 to 45 professional clubs with diametrically divergent interests is no easy task. The “big” clubs are campaigning for a more substantial capture of resources from broadcasting rights (in order to compete with the best European clubs), the other clubs want a more equal distribution of these resources and are campaigning for the reduction of the associated risk. at the risk of relegation to the lower division. More broadly, each club seeks to become a insider and bluntly pushes them away outsiders : when a club is promoted to Ligue 1, it seeks to limit the resources redistributed to Ligue 2 even though it demanded their increase a few weeks earlier. When a club is promoted to Ligue 2, it blocks the creation of a professional Ligue 3 even though it claimed it when it was playing in the National Championship a few months earlier… In this universe of short-term decisions, balkanization is ‘is accentuated with the creation of a union supposed to bring together only the “cadors” of French football. This union, called “Premier League” (echoing the name of the wealthy Anglo-Welsh league) is trapped in an equation whose resolution is impossible: it must be made up of a significant number of clubs in order to weigh on the decisions of French football, but only accept within it a limited number of protagonists, supposed to be “cadors”. Originally only to be composed of Ligue 1 clubs, it now houses 2 Ligue 2 clubs (Toulouse and Caen) and 15 Ligue 1 clubs out of 20, depending on promotions and relegations, but also arbitrariness of ‘a system based on the participation of “useful idiots”.

The great difficulties of the governance of the LFP undoubtedly explain, in part, the collective blindness which preceded the MediaPro fiasco : at the heart of a deeply divided institution, the promise of a phenomenal increase in audiovisual broadcasting rights had become, between 2018 and 2020, an unexpected factor of cohesion. It is indeed much easier to share a cake when the size of it grows by 60%! Only a few independent observers warned in 2018 about the inept nature of this progression of rights already artificially inflated …

If the Covid crisis precipitated the failure of MediaPro, it is only the revealing of a structurally deadlocked situation. This impasse has been the result of no choice for several years. At a crossroads, French football must now make strong decisions.

The first of these decisions is the downsizing of the elite. You have to go from 20 to 16 clubs in Ligue 1. First of all because reducing this format will mechanically improve the average level of the league. Then, because the reform of the Champions League (and perhaps the creation of a European super league) will restrict the number of dates available for the “domestic” league. The challenge is to guarantee the long-term participation of the big European clubs in their national leagues. Indeed, the point of threat of the big European clubs today is the creation of a Major League of football in Europe and their concomitant desertion from the national leagues which would then become “minor” leagues.

This reduction in the Ligue 1 format must be accompanied by the creation, as in other European countries, of a professional Ligue 3. In fact, it is necessary to compensate for the reduction in the size of the elite, but also to eliminate the risk of “industrial disaster” of relegation to the amateur league. Ideally, a professional Ligue 3 should be created with two pools (North and South type) of 18 teams each. In the same spirit, we must build a semi-professionalization system at 4th level. We must indeed continue to fight against “brown amateurism” and its procession of occult practices.

It is also necessary (as proposed by the Premier League union), to extend the duration of the first professional contract from three to five years. This provision is opportune because it makes it possible to keep young talents for a longer period in French professional leagues, or, failing that, to resell them in a more beneficial way in foreign leagues.

The last sensitive point is the key to the distribution of TV rights between clubs within the different professional leagues.. It is important to remember that the distribution of audiovisual rights must not be too unequal to guarantee a certain level of competitive balance within the league. This central objective comes up against the need to guarantee substantial income for clubs taking part in European competitions. Here is a complex arbitration which will remain conflictual as long as national and continental competitions coexist. But it is worth remembering that UEFA aims to (re) create a 3th European Cup, which suggests that 8-10 clubs (i.e. the majority of a 16-way league) will participate in a European competition each year. This should have the consequence of easing tensions within the elite of French football.

French football must now make decisions other than cosmetic to regain its competitiveness. The main one of these decisions is the reduction of the format of the elite to increase the average quality. This reduction can be done in four years relatively painlessly (3 relegations per year for only 2 promotions). This would put French football in a strengthened position in 2024, year 0 of the new formula of the Champions League. For once, French football would have shone with its sense of anticipation.

Jean-Pascal GAYANT, Professor of Economics, GAINS, LE Mans University and CREM, University of Rennes 1

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