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Rocco Commisso interview: FIFA is applying a double standard on Super League vs. MLS

One of the factors that derailed the Super League in April was a strong intervention from FIFA president Gianni Infantino, who said: "We can only strongly disapprove of the creation of the Super League, a Super League that is a closed shop."

Those words meant Infantino was siding with UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin, with whom he had sometimes clashed in the past over FIFA's proposed expanded Club World Cup. But the condemnation of the "closed shop" by the game's governing body left some, like Fiorentina and New York Cosmos owner Rocco Commisso, somewhat bemused.

Commisso, a proponent of the pyramid system in the U.S., feels FIFA is applying a double standard in its stance on the Super League compared to how it feels about Major League Soccer. (MLS is a "closed system," which means there is no pyramid and no promotion/relegation between leagues.) We caught up with Commisso in early May in a wide ranging interview.

Q: How did you feel when you first heard the Super League was going ahead?

A: It was a very confusing moment to me, but very quickly everybody was up in arms. It certainly didn't take me to stop it.

It was many, many years in planning, and two days in destruction and they certainly didn't do a very good job on the public relations front. They just tried to copy parts of an American model and impose it on Europe... well, it was never going to work, especially not the way they did it. This sport isn't about closed leagues...

Q: Super League proponents argued that it was necessary to make the game sustainable in the long-term and continue to attract investment. But if you have a system where 15 of 20 clubs are guaranteed a spot in the top league, with everybody else fighting it out each season for the other five spots, you're not going to get much in the way of social mobility. And people aren't going to invest further down the food chain.

I wonder if a lot of the investment the game has attracted in recent years would have occurred in those circumstances. I'm not just thinking of you at Fiorentina, but plenty of other clubs, from Marseille to Southampton, from Burnley to Roma... why would somebody inject money if it's nearly impossible for them to climb the mountain?

A: When I bought Fiorentina two years ago, I was leaving behind a closed system in the U.S. and investing there because there was a chance to grow. I guarantee you that if the Super League had been in place, I wouldn't have put money in and neither would [Dan] Friedkin at Roma.

The way I look at it: the pie is the pie. The more that goes to the bigger clubs, the less there is for everybody else. But you have to get your slice on merit -- not simply being accepted by the big guys. Instead, we got a project that was led in part by some of the American owners at Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal, who wanted a closed shop where they stay rich and everyone else gets poorer.

(Ed. Note: Also among the driving forces of the project were Real Madrid president Florentino Perez, who is Spanish, and Juventus president Andrea Agnelli, who is Italian.)

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Q: Basically, the Super League would have meant that the "founder" clubs with guaranteed places would have received rental income. They could do nothing if they wanted and money would still flow to them every year because they wouldn't need to be there on merit. FIFA said this was unacceptable.

Were you surprised given FIFA weren't quite as supportive of promotion and relegation when it came to North American and Major League Soccer? (Miami FC and Kingston Stockade took FIFA, CONCACAF and the USSF to the Court of Arbitration for Sport and ultimately lost the case, with the verdict ruling that while FIFA opposed closed leagues it could allow them in countries with no history of promotion/relegation.)

A: I'm not just passionate on this issue, I spent a lot of money on it. I bought the New York Cosmos to save them. Because of the 2026 World Cup, FIFA decided to apply different rules in CONCACAF [by allowing a closed league like MLS]. Well, FIFA should have the same laws for everyone regardless of where you are... it's a world game.

Q: Have you spoken to FIFA about it?

A: Not yet. Maybe I will. But it's simply about we in America thinking we're different and global rules shouldn't apply to us.

I get it. [MLS] say "we just charged the owners of the new club in Charlotte $300 million to come into our league... We can't then turn around and tell him 'by the way, you're in danger of getting relegated.'" Though, in fact, I took the same risk at Fiorentina -- roughly the same investment -- and I'm in danger of getting relegated. Well, that should be part of how the game is played around the world.

You should ask FIFA. Or you tell me: why is there a double standard here?

Q: Well, I can't speak for them, but the argument might be that FIFA wants to develop the game in the U.S. and have a successful World Cup.

Part of the way you develop the game is to attract investment. American investors are familiar with, and comfortable with, the closed league model because they know it from other sports. Maybe if there was the risk of relegation, the guys in Charlotte might not have invested as much money and the area wouldn't have a top-flight team, which means less infrastructure, less grassroots, less visibility for the sport. So there's a "greater good" argument.

FIFA might say 2026 is a big deal, we want to go to the next level in the U.S., MLS is a big part of it, we're not going to open this can of worms until after that date.

A: Yeah, but that's six years down the road... I'm not gonna be around in six years, how long am I going to live? [laughs]

I think the time to act is now, and they should do it quickly. Besides, there are lots of ways to do it while safeguarding the investment of the guys who paid the recent franchise fees. Why can't FIFA come out and say the norms should be the same all over the world? Infantino was pretty forceful in Europe, why wasn't he forceful in America? You know more than me: explain to me, why is that the case?

Q: I can't put words in his mouth, I'm speculating, maybe he feels the model they have now in the US works and its best not to tinker with it. At least not until after the World Cup...

A: Well, when I started my lawsuit there was no 2026 World Cup in the U.S. yet. In fact, everybody I deal with at the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) is no longer there: Carlos Cordeiro (USSF president, 2018 to 2020), Dan Flynn (USSF CEO, 2000 to 2019), Sunil Gulati (USSF president, 2006 to 2018)... all gone. The faces have changed, but the system is the same. They don't take care of the entire pyramid like they should.

And look, what have we accomplished in the past 25 years? Do you know of one player in MLS that's world famous? I don't mean guys like Christian Pulisic or Giovanni Reyna or Weston McKennie who play in Europe, I mean guys in MLS... They stil maintain payrolls of $20m or $25m a year, the clubs are all making money, but they're not expressing the best of soccer... Look at the TV rights...

(Ed. Note: The available spend for MLS teams is capped at $9.225m, with an average team payroll of $12.3m: the difference is money spent on Designated Players, who do not count against the cap. The highest payroll for 2021 is Inter Miami CF, which is spending just under $18m this season.)

Q: Go on...

A: Did you know that the TV money that MLS gets from its domestic TV contract is significantly less than what NBC is paying for the Premier League? Significantly less. And that's for a foreign league that plays in the morning on weekends, not in prime time.

Even the TV rights we negotiated for Serie A with CBS aren't significantly lower than what MLS get for their TV rights. It's a domestic league, right? In the world's biggest economy? But they don't care. By limiting player salaries and splitting up whatever revenues they get they can play the long game... other than infrastructure investments they don't spend any kind of money to make the sport grow.

Q: Final question from me on the New York Cosmos, probably still the biggest club brand in U.S. soccer. Where are you at now?

A: We played in the National Independent Soccer Association (NiSA) last year, generated zero revenue because of COVID and had all kinds of expenses. You know what it means to run a club in those circumstances... and frankly, we didn't have a great season. So because of the coronavirus and because of the conditions, we decided not to play in their championship. We'll see where we are and we may or may not play in the fall. We first want to see where things go with COVID, and also with our lawsuit against the USSF, which after four years is still unresolved.