Champions League reforms in the long grass but soccer’s constitutional crisis lingers on

16 September 2019 | Clubs & Rightsholders
Champions League reforms in the long grass but soccer’s constitutional crisis lingers on
UEFA's proposals to provide greater certainty for leading teams in the Champions League were frozen this week as clubs across the continent failed to reach agreement on the way forward. The conditions that produced them, however, are not going away.

Earlier this week, a small but wealthy cohort faced some resistance in forcing through plans for future relationships in Europe based on a narrow, radical interpretation of the wishes of the wider population. The result will most likely be a longer period of uncertainty and rancour.

I know, right?

Soccer’s European Club Association (ECA), which represents 200 professional teams across the continent, has declared that it didn’t have anything much to announce about the future of UEFA and domestic competitions. It had been expected through the summer that its meeting in Geneva would bring confirmation of a new pyramid and schedule from 2024 onwards, but no satisfactory agreement has been found.

Despite the introduction of a new third-tier competition from 2021, Europa League 2, reports from Switzerland have hinted at a less dramatic restructuring this time around. Yet it’s a conversation that is some way from being over, with the firmest deadline being the 2022 tender of media rights for European competitions from 2024/25 to 2026/27. The course of it from here will say much about the wider business of sport.

This is a debate that pits grandees like Juventus – who share a chairman with the ECA in Andrea Agnelli, and who have hit a ceiling at home and abroad – against smaller clubs and against their own leagues. It is also one that will be shaped by and reflect community trends and supporter behaviour in ways that can’t quite be predicted yet.  

The 'sticking point', according to the Financial Times, has been the composition and qualification criteria for the elite Champions League. Armed with the nuclear option of a breakaway Super League, leading clubs have for some time sought greater certainty around Champions League access – that certainty being they they’ll definitely get to be in it every year.  

Among their suggestions was an allocation of legacy places, automatic spots for teams that had a long history in European competition and were coincidentally among the richest in the world. So not Ajax, who were seconds away from the 2019 final, or Red Star Belgrade, the last winners of what was the European Cup.  

UEFA countered with a new format that would give the 24 best teams in each season’s Champions League a place the following year. It would have featured four groups of eight, guaranteeing more matchday appearances, with a number of games shifted to weekends for the first time in the competition’s history. Those changes were enough to raise the hackles not just of overlooked clubs but also those running the ‘big five’ leagues of England, Spain, Italy, Germany, and France, whose primacy would be challenged as never before.  

“In the short term, those changes would only benefit the big clubs,” said LaLiga president Javier Tebas, speaking to SportsPro’s Ed Dixon at Soccerex Europe in Portugal last week. “But if you look very closely in the medium to long term, it would’ve also damaged the big clubs. It explains why the big clubs in England are against it.

“The problem in European football is not with the format of competitions. It’s a problem with the economic distribution. As a big European league, we are ready to sit down and talk.”

A looming concern for those big European leagues face is the dip in confidence among top clubs that they can still deliver the right financial returns. As sports media moves properly into the digital age, the strategic challenges are already building for the big domestic leagues. 

Earlier this year, Italy’s Serie A postponed a decision on a broadcast rights offer from Mediapro worth €1.15 billion a year from 2021 to 2024, a partnership that would also see the agency build a dedicated channel for the league. But that proposal arrived a year after the courtroom collapse of an earlier agreement between the two.

LaLiga, meanwhile, has itself shifted course here in the UK amid the paring down of secondary rights outlay by market leaders BT Sport and Sky Sports. Last year it supported Eleven Sports’ stuttering launch and now, by way of a short-term stint on ITV4, it has entered a three-year partnership with Premier Sports. 

The outcome is interesting – a combination of pay-TV, free-to-air on Freesports, and the development of a dedicated channel – but the journey underlines how much the commercial certainties of the past decade are falling away. 

In Germany, the Bundesliga is understood to be exploring OTT options. England’s Premier League rights sales have continued to boom internationally, despite levelling off back home, but its protracted search for a new chief executive hints at some very delicate work ahead in squaring the varied interests of its clubs with the realities of the marketplace. Its top six clubs have already carved out a bigger share of overseas rights revenues. 

What proponents of a closed-off Champions League are really after is a very conservative kind of revolution in which jeopardy is the ultimate foe. The trend towards low-risk, high-volume competitions is not unique to soccer but that doesn’t necessarily make it any more welcome. One of the compromise tweaks floating around Geneva, according to the BBC, is the reintroduction of a second group phase for the Champions League. That was last seen in 2003 when it was dropped after four years in use because, frankly, it wasn’t very much fun to watch. 

Meanwhile, the other contest of the 2020s will be for association with top players. Changes in media consumption – for example, from watching curated broadcasts to making a personalised hunt for clips – could increase the value attached to individuals, possibly at at the expense of the competition they are playing in or the teams they are playing for.

UEFA has set about bolstering the profile of its national team competitions in recent seasons. The men’s UEFA Nations League was warmly greeted last year. An expanded men’s European Championship, featuring 24 teams for the second time, will be played across 12 countries next year before culminating at London’s Wembley Stadium – a venue that probably felt less poignantly ironic when it was awarded the final back in 2013. 

England will also host UEFA Women’s Euro 2021 at a pivotal stage in the growth of the women’s game. Major European clubs are now alive to the possibilities in women’s soccer – belatedly, in some cases – but this is a part of the sport unencumbered by history and national teams and international tournaments are still more significant in creating stars. Fans’ appetite for seeing those players meet more often could affect the development of women’s competitions in unexpected ways.

Faced with those conditions, the leading European powers may only be more determined to protect and cultivate their empires. But they have been served with a reminder this week of the influence of teams below them. There will be no such thing here as a clean break.

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