Belgian lower league teams are in trouble

This week the new FIFA ranking was announced. Belgium is in third place and can surpass second placed Colombia when they would manage to beat Wales for the upcoming EC qualifier in June. Belgian football has never been so popular and prolific. Our players are ranked amongst the highest rated players in the world : Eden Hazard is the best player in the Premier League by far and the best player in the Bundesliga can also be found on Marc Wilmots’ team sheet. You can imagine Jose Mourinho hurling his remote at his television set in anger when Kevin De Bruyne supplies Bas Dost with another magnificent assist.

The list goes on : Fellaini being reborn as a central pawn in Louis Van Gaal’s Manchester United, Christian Benteke on fire against QPR earlier this week. Courtois and Mignolet are amongst the highest rated goalkeepers in the Premier League.

Yet on the domestic level Belgian football’s outlook isn’t looking all that rosy. This week it was announced that five teams from the second division did not comply with the requirements to get a license to play in the second division. When you’re not able to fulfill the requirement you don’t play. It’s as simple as that. Those five teams would either disappear in bankruptcy or drop down to the third-tier where less restrictions apply. The ruling is not final , these five clubs have a few weeks to get their affairs in order.

This licensing system was instated in the 2001-2002 season, after it was revealed that the top twenty Belgian clubs had over 20 million euro of debt combined. Strange how that sounds like – well , not much, today.

In order to play in the Jupiler Pro League certain requirements need to be fulfilled. Same goes for the second division. These requirements are largely financial in nature : you have to prove that your players are being paid , you’re paying your taxes , social security , et cetera … Your stadium has to have floodlights with a light strength of 400 Lux for second division and 800 Lux to be able to play in the Pro League. There’s a huge list you need to comply with infrastructure-wise but the main requirement is to prove financial liquidity.

And that is the big problem.

There is no money at these second division teams. The issue is much debated and there are even academic studies devoted to the problem. General consensus is that it boils down to visibility when we’re talking about the lower leagues. The Pro League, who organizes the competition and is a spokesperson for first division teams, gets a tremendous and undisclosed amount of money for television rights which they distribute amongst the top-tier teams. We know it’s at least 70 million euro per season. Clubs in second division do not get any of that money. Having the television money makes it easier to comply with the licensing requirements, of course. Success breeds success or if you’re a little bit more inclined towards being a cynic you might say that the rich are getting richer.

In previous articles on this website the playoff structure was explained at length. This playoff system was created to generate more income for the top clubs – of course they would call it “exciting” instead of “lucrative”. The structure of the competition on the lower end of the table makes it very difficult to fall out of this select list of teams. The two teams that end in last place have to battle it out to avoid direct relegation. The team that wins this “Playoff III” gets dropped in a competition for promotion to the Pro League with 3 teams from the second division. Only the champion in second division gets to play for certain.

The equivalent of this Pro League organization in Germany and France comprise of their first AND second divisions. More teams can be relegated , but it’s also a lot easier to come back. This allows for more excitement in these leagues and more healthy rotation between the two divisions. But what’s different is that there is a television audience for tier two clubs in France and Germany. Look at the Championship, England’s second tier, the battle in that league each year is spectacular and clubs are playing in giant stadiums and are selling out every week.

The Jupiler Pro League meanwhile has become the metaphorical equivalent of an exclusive nightclub with a giant bouncer at the door who is only allowing the pretty girls inside. Inside the club that might make for a fun time, but standing outside in the rain queuing to get in is anything but.

Belgium has about 11 million inhabitants and not everyone is a football fan. Attendances are low by nature. There is only room for three or four ‘top clubs’ that can hope to build a successful and profitable organization and are able to sustain that by going playing in European competitions and going for that sweet Champion’s League gold. There is no television audience that wants to watch games in lower leagues. It has been tried in 2008 when the second division became the “Exqi League” and television channel Exqi would show second division games. Two seasons later this experiment ended. Exqi did not survive this experiment.

It’s very understandable people would rather watch Anderlecht-Club Brugge , the Manchester derby or the Classico via their cable subscriptions over a second division game on a bad pitch with insufficient lighting.

As fun as Playoff I is right now , the current structure is wreaking havoc on the lower leagues.

Money is king in modern football. There are teams in the lower divisions that have the potential of becoming one of the bigger clubs in Belgium because of their geographical location and large potential fanbase. Think of Royal Antwerp and Eendracht Aalst as just two examples. They both can easily fill up a 10.000 seat stadium on a weekly basis. But as long as you’re not in the Pro League and playing Anderlecht, Standard or Brugge nobody cares. Sponsors will only come to those clubs whose games are shown on national television.

The future is looking bleak for these smaller organizations. They cannot keep up and the deck is stacked against them. Their only hope is having two remarkably wonderful seasons, in which they promote to the top league and are able to maintain in the season after that. The market as it is set up now, only caters for a few teams to thrive. On the other hand this setup might be at the root for the success a team like Club Brugge is now having in Europe. They wouldn’t have been able to build their team if they had to distribute the funds with lower league sides.

Perhaps at the KBVB they are pretty happy with the way things are going.  We’re convinced they need to start looking at a total rehaul of the league structure.  There is too much pain, too much frustration at the lower levels. There are people that are looking at how professional sports are organised in the US and that might be the way to go. No relegation, only professional teams and a playoff structure that plays out like a tournament with knockout stages. Then blueprints of these leagues in which each tier 1 team has an affiliate. The reserves of the top teams would be playing in this division.And if you’re looking at US sports, please also look at how they handle video replays and video referees.

Food for thought.

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