What to expect from the Africa Super League
What are the pros and cons of the new proposed competition?
The Confederation for African Football (CAF) recently announced plans for a continent-wide Africa Super League. It will kick off with 24 clubs from 16 countries in August 2023.
The new tournament will run annually from August to May, with 197 games in a format much like the UEFA Champions League. It starts off with the teams grouped in three zones – North Africa, West/Central Africa and East/Southern Africa. The top 16 clubs move into a knockout phase.
The enticement is a projected $200 million windfall from CAF, with 25% of the funds going to the development of women’s and youth football. The rest goes into prize money for participating clubs. All members of CAF will get $1 million each, while the winners of the Super League will receive $11.5 million. This prize is much bigger than the $2.5 million currently received by the champions of the African Champions League. That club tournament, as well as the Confederation Cup, will continue with entries from all African countries, but the format for both competitions will return to the earlier iteration of two-legged elimination contests.
For CAF, which lost an estimated $45 million in 2020-21, the Africa Super League is a way to earn big money from television rights. However, CAF provided very few answers to questions about the practical realities of the league when its plans were announced in Tanzania on 10 August.
There are pertinent questions that need clarifying, but even at this early stage it’s clear that there are strengths and weaknesses to the shiny new Africa Super League.
There are at least two major issues that CAF should clarify.
The proposed Super League, which runs for the entire football season, involves 24 clubs that will, at the same time, be playing in their national club competitions. Continental competitions often disrupt local leagues. In places like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria, the distance covered by clubs travelling by road to league games is three times that in England. With these clubs being out of the country for long periods, the travel arrangements for local competitions become more complex. Additionally, African players travel frequently to seek contracts abroad. This affects the squad sizes of local clubs that are being asked to participate in expanded fixtures at the continental level.
A second question is whether the winner of this competition will automatically have a place in the expanded World Clubs competition that world football body FIFA is reportedly amending. This is important given that the current representative to the global competition from Africa is the winner of the African Champions League.
The predicted $200 million windfall from the Africa Super League is not as steep as many may think. As far back as 2015, CAF signed a $1 billion TV rights deal with the Lagardère Group, which amounted to a little under $100 million a year for 12 years. By the time CAF cancelled the deal a few years later, it had become clear that this money was a pittance compared to similar TV rights signed elsewhere. In 2018, for instance, the Asian Football Confederation signed a deal worth $4 billion.
Seven years after the Lagardère contract, there is every reason to expect an improved television contract for a proposed African league that would offer more games with better-known teams participating. The Super League is far better suited to TV interest and better placed to attract bigger rights deals than existing continent-wide competitions for clubs.
Yet an African league is, of course, not nearly as popular as the Champions League in Europe, where $2 billion in rights was earned in 2022 and close to $1 billion brought in via commercial rights alone.
CAF claims that the Super League will African clubs more attractive to players by dissuading them from travelling outside the continent to earn a living. However, the competition’s payoff to most participating clubs is unlikely to be significant enough to keep players home.
North African clubs that currently keep most of their players and even poach from other African countries will be advantaged. With CAF’s proposed formula for sharing prize money, they will likely be able to widen the gap between themselves and clubs from other regions. Keeping players in sub-Saharan African clubs will continue to be a struggle.
CAF could have used this opportunity to strengthen privately owned clubs by granting access only to them. Instead, it sought to include clubs based on current strength of performance even if these clubs are state-supported. The problem, across the continent, is that state-supported clubs are not compelled to develop commercially and become trapped in their dependency on the state. The current plan is therefore a missed an opportunity to develop commercial club competition in Africa and help them establish revenue sources that are needed to make them competitive at a global level.