What the UEFA Champions League changes mean and how they happened
UEFA is set to approve some major structural changes to the Champions League, the highlight being automatic group stage qualification for the top four teams from the top four leagues. Gab Marcotti reviews what this might mean and how this happened.
Q: So, from 2018-19, the Champions' League will have 16 of 32 clubs coming from the top four leagues? When did that happen?
A: It hasn't -- yet. It needs to be approved by UEFA's executive committee later this month, but that's part of the compromise that was hammered out between UEFA's club competition committee, headed by Portugal's Fernando Gomes, and some of Europe's big clubs.
Given that it's been agreed, I think we can expect it to be rubber-stamped.
Q: So how is it going to work?
A: There are plenty of details yet to be determined. But what we do know is that the top four leagues, according to UEFA coefficients (right now it's Spain's Liga, Germany's Bundesliga, England's Premier League and Italy's Serie A), will each qualify four teams directly to the group stage.
That's a big change. Right now, the top three leagues get three guaranteed spots in the group stage plus they enter another team in the playoffs. The fourth league gets two spots, plus another in the playoffs.
Q: It doesn't look like a good deal for any league which isn't in the top four...
A: It isn't. In fact, it's a bit of a screw job. This is not just about the fewer spots available to everybody else, it's also the advantage that goes to the team that goes to the big league. It removes the uncertainty of the playoff stage, which allows you to raise more money from sponsors and makes it easier to plan. The rich will get richer; there's no escaping that.
Q: So why did UEFA do this? What are they thinking?
A: They found themselves between a rock and a hard place. Some of the big clubs from the big leagues had been lobbying for this for a while. Most of the revenue that comes into the Champions' League comes from broadcast and sponsorship rights. And, obviously, sponsors and broadcasters pay with the expectation that they'll see a Juventus or a Real Madrid or a Manchester United in the competition. If you can guarantee that, they figure it guarantees a certain level of audience. Therefore, they're happy to pay more.
If there's a greater risk that instead of, say, Barcelona vs. Bayern we get APOEL vs. BATE Borisov, that won't be as attractive. One of the clubs in favor of these changes reckons that it could generate an extra 20 percent in revenue per season.
The big clubs argue that because they invest more in their squads and generate more revenue for the competition, they should get more back and their participation should not be in doubt. They were threatening to do something about it unless the system was changed.
Q: Like what?
A: Remember the breakaway Super League talk? It wasn't just idle chitchat. There were clubs threatening to pull out of the Champions League and set up their own competition. And they were serious about it.
Q: How realistic was the threat?
A: Realistic enough that UEFA's lead negotiators -- Gomes, Michael van Praag from the Dutch FA and former Manchester United chief executive David Gill -- believed them. And they were probably right to do so. Imagine the damage that could be done if the likes of Real Madrid, Juventus and half a dozen other blue-chip clubs decided to sit out a season or, worse, set up their own competition.
I'm told that negotiations went on for six months and, at times, got rather nasty. Once they agreed to stay in, the clubs asked for a whole bunch of other things, beyond the guaranteed Champions League places.
Q: Such as?
A: They talked about having "wild card" entries for "historical merit," which is another way of taking a club like Manchester United or Milan and allowing them into the competition because they're a historically big club. They wanted to look at playing some Champions League games at the weekend so that TV revenue could be maximized. They even talked about setting up a new company to run the Champions League in which UEFA and the clubs (just the big ones, obviously) would be equal partners.
When you consider all that, UEFA might have done OK to limit the damage and say no to all this. It could have been far worse. Remember that UEFA don't have a president and haven't had one since Michel Platini was banned last year. All they have is an interim general secretary, Theo Theodoridis, and he's only there because his predecessor Gianni Infantino is now FIFA president. A strong UEFA president with political clout, visibility and a broad mandate might have been able to avoid this.
Plus, time was running out. The deal to cover the 2018 to 2021 cycle had to be completed by the fall. The big clubs had UEFA over a barrel and this deal at least limits the damage and keeps them in the tent. At least for now.
Q: Could UEFA have called their bluff and dared them to break away?
A: In theory, yes, I suppose. It's one thing for a team as big as Real Madrid to talk about setting up their own competition; it's another for them to actually do it and turn their back on winning a 12th European Cup. But that would have been meant taking a huge risk and essentially going to war with the clubs who generate the bulk of your revenue. It also could have led to the kind of split from which there's no going back.
Such a breakdown would have been self-destructive for both sides.
Q: What other aspects need to be determined?
A: I think they might revise the prize money, for a start. It's already heavily skewed in favor of the clubs from the big leagues via the "market pool," which is a pot of money that gets allocated based on the size of a domestic TV contract. (Incidentally, that's why Juventus two years ago and Manchester City last year earned the most from the Champions League despite not winning it.) And they'll need to figure out how to allocate the other 16 Champions League spots.
Q: So this deal runs through 2021. And then what?
A: It's anyone's guess. I'd imagine the rich clubs from the big leagues aren't going to say "fair enough, we're wealthy enough, we're happy to share with everybody else now." The desire by some for a club-run, closed European Super League will still be there. After all, these changes are likely to only increase the gap between the haves and the have-nots.
Q: How thoroughly depressing...
A: Look, if some of the big clubs had their way, UEFA would act like a commercial enterprise and nothing more, like the NFL or NBA. They're businesses and business likes certainty. The idea of sporting merit is secondary -- they're actors in a big TV show, they need to attract eyeballs and sponsors.
But UEFA wasn't set up for that. They're a governing body that organizes a competition for all 55 of their member states. They have a different mandate and given the climate, it's quite a result that they were able to safeguard those 16 slots for teams not in the big four leagues. Or, indeed, it didn't just turn into some invitation-only monstrosity, as some would have wanted.
Q: Can we end this on a hopeful note?
A: I'll try: One of the big problems here -- through no fault of its own -- is the Premier League. They are so much more commercially successful than the others that now even second-tier English clubs can compete with top teams from other nations in terms of wages and transfer fees.
Domestic TV revenue has been increasing in Germany, Spain and Italy but not to the degree it has in England. What's more, in Spain they've moved from an individual system of selling rights -- the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid could negotiate their own deals, which were far more lucrative -- to a collective approach. That's better for competition and the league as a whole, but not so good for the big boys, at least in the short term. And so they want to squeeze as much as they can out of the Champions League.
For English clubs it's less of an issue because revenue from European competition represents a smaller proportion of their income. In fact, several people involved told me they were not among those pushing for the change but rather went along for the ride. So, even though it may seem like a contradiction, if the other leagues could grow their income to the point where they're less dependent on the Champions League, maybe they can be a bit more egalitarian when it comes to European revenue. I think in time that can happen.
And maybe, when UEFA hold elections in September, we'll get a strong president. Someone capable of building a coalition that keeps some of these big clubs in check, someone able to sell the Champions League concept as something other than a glitzy cash cow.
But yeah, I'm grasping at straws here. The power is with the big clubs when it comes to the Champions League. And the more you think about it, the more you might conclude that UEFA did well to secure this compromise solution. To many, the alternative would have been far worse.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.