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Beneliga discussion surfaces again, but is more of a symptom than a solution

Ajax and Standard Liege are two of the clubs involved in the BeNeLiga talks (by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

  • Dutch Eredivisie and Belgian Pro League have suffered due to relatively small size of their TV markets
  • Biggest eleven clubs from across both leagues started exploring joint league in May
  • Joint league likely to offer fewer Uefa Champions League places

The Belgian Pro League and the Dutch Eredivisie are two of the world’s finest breeding grounds for young footballers. The high standard of youth coaching in both countries has enabled them to punch above their weight on the international stage, but their domestic leagues have suffered over the past 15 years due to the relatively small size of their television markets. Their best young players are leaving earlier and earlier, preventing their leagues from growing.

The ever-growing influence of Europe’s top-five leagues is squeezing the life out of professional football in Europe’s lowlands. Financial Fair Play rules prevent clubs from spending beyond their means, meaning they have no choice but to rely on their ability to identify, nurture and sell their young talents to balance the books.

Belgium and the Netherlands sit 8th and 9th respectively in Uefa’s country coefficients – behind Russia and Portugal – which stipulate the number of European club competition places for teams from each nation. Only Ajax’s stellar Champions League performances over the past two seasons have prevented the Netherlands from falling to 11th, below Ukraine and Turkey. Club football is stagnant and many have had enough.

The concept of a BeNeLigue, or BeNeLiga – a top-tier league combining the best clubs from Belgium and the Netherlands – was first mooted in 1996 as a way for Dutch and Belgian clubs to keep pace with the commercial changes in European club football. The concept has cropped up several times over the past 23 years, but a group of Belgian clubs known as the G5 are hoping that this time, something will stick.

Bart Verhaeghe, president of Club Brugge, told Le Monde in October: “We are creating a league with the Netherlands that can reduce our gap with the big five leagues, which will open a market of 28 million consumers. A new meeting is scheduled this week. The championship should include eighteen clubs, including eight Belgian. It can go fast. If it’s not for next season, probably in the next two.”

Club Brugge celebrate after scoring a goal during a Jupiler Pro League match against KRC Genk. (Photo by Vincent Van Doornick/Isosport/MB Media/Getty Images)

Warming up

The Dutch football association (KNVB) was once stone cold on the idea but recognises that European club football has become increasingly polarised, separating clubs into camps of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. Quite rightly, the Dutch association fears being left behind.

In a press release last month it said: “Such a competition (the BeNeLiga) seems to be an effective way to narrow the gap with the largest five European competitions, both financially and sportingly. Belgium and the Netherlands currently have two competitions that belong to the middle bracket of Europe, but together they can become Europe’s sixth competition.

“The ambition to join the top five in Europe has also been prompted by the changes [to Uefa club competition formats] currently being discussed at European level, with the risk that the playing field will be diluted into a mix of large and small competitions, in which the middle bracket disappears.”

The biggest eleven clubs across both countries – AA Ghent, Ajax, AZ Alkmaar, Club Brugge, FC Utrecht, Feyenoord, KRC Genk, PSV Eindhoven, RSC Anderlecht, Standard Liège and Vitesse Arnhem – began exploring the possibility of a BeNeLiga in May, canvassing opinion across their respective leagues.

A Dutch Eredivisie match between PSV Eindhoven and Ajax Amsterdam. (Photo by VI Images via Getty Images)

This unified effort from powerful stakeholders prompted the Dutch and Belgian football federations to take the concept seriously, but sources say only the big five Belgian clubs were at this point committed to bringing the concept into reality. The perception was that their Dutch neighbours were humouring them by being at the table.

That remained the case until professional services firm Deloitte, hired by the two countries’ football associations to conduct a ‘feasibility study’, and raved about the potential commercial benefits for Belgian and Dutch clubs in its initial findings. In the words of one executive at a Belgian pay-television operator: “It has put Euro signs in their eyes.”

The status quo

Belgian clubs currently earn €81m per season for their global media rights, with €79m of this amount coming from their domestic rights. The Pro League’s original global rights deal with MP & Silva, from 2014-15 to 2019-20, expired with the agency. However, the league inherited the deals already in place with Belgium’s three biggest telcos: Telenet, Proximus and Voo.

Telenet pays €28m per season, Proximus about €18m per season and Voo just over €14m per season. The rights were sold non-exclusively because none of these telcos could afford to buy the rights exclusively.

Pierre Maes, a former Telenet consultant and the author of football media rights book Le Business des droits TV du foot, tells SportBusiness that the Pro League in its current form will find it very difficult to earn more than it currently does: “It feels like we are at a maximum now. Competition is what drives media rights increases and it just isn’t there. It would take an agency or a new player to come in and pay more.”

This is not what Pro League clubs want to hear. The league is currently in the process of selling its domestic media rights with an optimistic goal of completing new deals by the end of January. Several experts say the Pro League is working hard to drum up competition and has been courting the Mediapro agency – which holds exclusive rights to the French Ligue 1 from 2020-21 – to add fuel to the tender process.

Belgium’s top clubs are desperate to earn more money than at present, but without an intervention from a new entrant they are unlikely to enjoy any kind of significant increase from next season. This, combined with Deloitte’s findings, is fuelling Belgian interest in a Beneliga.

Dutch clubs have historically kept any discussion of a Beneliga at arm’s length and are generally cautious when dealing with wholesale change. The Eredivisie’s 12-season joint-venture with media group Fox, from 2013-14 to 2024-25, was seen at the time as a bold and somewhat unexpected move by the league. It gave up majority control of its league channel for a big increase in overall income, reducing its overall stake from 72 per cent to about 35 per cent.

The deal is understood to have guaranteed top-tier Dutch clubs €60m per season in 2013-14, rising each season to reach about €100m in 2024-25. The annual average value of the deal is understood to be worth about €80m per season for Eredivisie clubs, putting them roughly on par with their Belgian counterparts during the 2019-20 season.

The clubs were initially happy with the deal, but watching other leagues net exponential domestic rights increases while they remain locked into a 12-year deal has made them restless for change. In addition, clubs have received bad news from their international media rights partner IMG, which has warned the league it could see a rights fee reduction of 50 per cent or more for its rights outside the Netherlands in the next cycle.

The upside

With market conditions looking relatively unfavourable for both the Eredivisie and the Pro League, Deloitte’s findings are fuelling enthusiasm for wholesale change. Predicated on an 18-team league, with 10 from the Netherlands and eight from the Pro League, Deloitte is understood to have predicted that a Beneliga could potentially double the total domestic media rights income from both top-tier leagues, as well as stalling any decline in international rights income.

Total media rights income across both leagues currently stands at between €170m and €175m per season. Given that a multi-territory super-league would enable current players and new entrants to either expand their business or hit the ground running with a large subscriber base, experts believe media rights income could reach over €300m per season.

Multiple local experts believe the strategic advantage of holding exclusive rights to the number one sports property across two wealthy European markets could entice new and existing players to compete against one another more fiercely than at present, prompting existing domestic players to protect their turf.

Liberty Global, which owns Belgian telco Telenet and Dutch telco Ziggo, would be well-positioned to make a multi-territory bid. Streaming platform DAZN, which already has an office in Amsterdam, would likely be able to add a significant chunk of subscribers with a partially-exclusive acquisition. Existing players such as Proximus, Voo and Fox are also somewhat reliant on top-tier domestic football content.

Commercially, a Beneliga would secure everything top clubs in both countries want from their domestic media rights – an exponential increase that looks unlikely should each league’s structure remain the way it is.

Deloitte’s commercial projections, which are understood to be in line with those of media rights experts surveyed by SportBusiness, have inspired a greater sense of urgency among most of the Netherlands’ big six clubs, who recognise that a more lucrative future could await them.

There is one major exception to this rule. Of all the clubs in the Benelux region, Ajax have the most to lose and the least to gain from a Beneliga.

“Ajax is sitting sweet,” says former IMG media rights executive Floris Weisz, who has advised the club in a private capacity on their media rights strategy. “They are set for another year of Champions League football. They are top of the table again and if they win the league this year, they are guaranteed another €50m next year.”

Lassina Traore, Frenkie de Jong and Donny van de Beek of Ajax celebrate with the trophy after winning the Eredivisie (by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

Roadblocks

Weisz says that Ajax is looking closely at proposals for any future Beneliga, but the club would want guarantees both domestically and from Uefa that it would lead to commercial and sporting growth. If competing in a stronger league could strengthen its domestic commercial income but potentially jeopardise Ajax’s annual Champions League participation, it is understood the club would actively campaign against any merger.

This is a concern shared in both the Netherlands and Belgium, where big clubs’ continued participation in the Champions League and Europa League is essential to keeping them in business.

Uefa’s country coefficients mean that, at present, up to 10 clubs across the Netherlands and Belgium have the opportunity to play in Europe each season. Two clubs from each nation have the opportunity to play in the Champions League , while three from each nation can play themselves into the Europa League via qualifying rounds.

If the Eredivisie and the Pro League were to merge, it is highly unlikely Uefa would grant the combined league with as many places in Uefa’s top two European competitions as it currently has. Clubs from England, Germany, Italy and Spain are currently granted seven European places each across Uefa’s top two European competitions – three fewer than the Netherlands and Belgium combined.

Both leagues’ media rights situations also complicate any unified effort towards a merger. The Eredivisie’s joint-venture with Fox expires at the end of 2024-25, while the Pro League is all but bound to secure a three-season deal in its next domestic media rights contract, in line with European competition law. This would leave each league out of step with the other in terms of its media-rights cycles, complicating any bid to join forces on a commercial basis.

Finally, each league’s voting rules mean that two-thirds of clubs in the Eredivisie and up to 80 per cent of clubs in the Pro League would have to agree on structural changes to the league. These rules in particular should dim optimism around a Beneliga vote being passed in either league – half of all Belgian Pro League clubs would effectively be relegated from the country’s top tier as a result, while eight clubs in the Eredivisie would also suffer the same fate.

Dutch clubs could potentially break away from the existing structure at the end of 2024-25, when the Eredivisie company’s mandate to sell media rights on behalf of the clubs expires. In Belgium, that mandate is usually renewed every three to six years, but is currently unresolved for the 2019-20 season. Belgian clubs are currently unable to agree on how domestic media rights revenue should be split between them. As usual, the bigger clubs want a larger share.

SportBusiness Professional spoke to several media rights executives with extensive experience in Dutch and Belgian football about how these problems could be surmounted. Almost all of them agreed that the clubs need to be more dynamic in their negotiation style.

One former media rights executive said: “I don’t know how many meetings they’ve had about new competition setups. All sorts of ideas have been killed because of political issues. The big clubs want x but the small clubs want y. Nobody is brave enough to force the issue, so it’s status quo every year. There is no strong leader who stands up and says: ‘I’m the person who’s going to do this, this is how we’re going to do it, and if it doesn’t work you can blame me.’ There is so much debate and very few decisions.”

Weisz, who now works as a media rights consultant, says: “The Belgians want it because it will reignite their domestic rights discussion. The Dutch could want it because of the increased competition and a more interested media rights proposition. But, the reality of it is that it’s never advanced beyond talk and debate. At the moment, the rights don’t line up and I’m not sure if Uefa supports it from a Champions League/Europa League standpoint.”

“I don’t think it can’t happen. Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” he continued. “But Ajax will not vote for this unless Uefa commits to four Champions League spots. To go from the €10m they get this year from the Eredivisie to maybe €20m in the new scenario, that just doesn’t weigh up to the increased competition and opportunity costs of missing out on the Champions League. That, for me, is the biggest hurdle.”

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