By J Hutcherson (Oct 2, 2015) US Soccer Players – It doesn’t take much to ignore the Europa League entirely. UEFA’s secondary competition doesn’t fool many people. It’s a consolation prize, a dumping ground for Champions League losers, and an obligation that adds games of questionable quality to an already crowded club schedule. It’s a discount European vacation. Maybe not backpacks and hostels, but certainly not living large in multi-star accommodations.
Last night, AZ didn’t come close to selling out its Europa League game against Athletic. It’s a safe assumption that Athletic is a better team than the ones AZ sees showing up on its Eredivisie schedule. Sure, it’s a weeknight game in the early time slot, but it’s still the point of the work AZ has been doing over the last few seasons. Europe is the reward after all, regardless of the tournament, right?
Maybe, but there are enough clubs where the next domestic league game seems like it matters more to the home fans. That’s the real test for any tournament, whether or not it convinces fans to show up in the same numbers they would for a big domestic league game. Without that, what’s the point?
That’s a lesson for the confederations intent on following UEFA’s European leagues example. CONCACAF might call their tournament the Champions League, but it has more in common with the Europa. The big Mexican clubs face an obligation to play while eyeing the CONMEBOL tournament they’d rather be playing. The champions from the weaker CONCACAF leagues end up in a situation where there’s no realistic way to compete for the title.
Caught in between is MLS, a league that says the right things about the tournament but doesn’t get the broad fan support or the results. It’s an open question if an MLS team winning the Champions League would change anything across the board.
What CONCACAF wants from the Champions League seems to be an ongoing question. Rumors that they’ll switch the tournament schedule to hold it in a calendar year probably won’t convert many potential fans. Inclusiveness also has its limits, forcing the kind of travel and matchups that help build into disinterest. Doing away with groups of three teams would certainly help the staggered schedule and meaningless games, but again that’s not likely to push the tournament into the mainstream.
UEFA set that example. Their conversion of the UEFA Cup and Cup Winner’s Cup into the Europa League was presented like they’d done Europe a favor. Instead, their mash up only underlined what some fans were already thinking. The consolation prize isn’t worth it. A second-tier tournament isn’t fooling anyone.
CONCACAF’s Champions League might have the flashier name, but it’s the same situation. Getting Seattle Sounders fans to show up in numbers to see their team play any game that counts is no trick. Getting Liga MX fans to do the same while paying regular ticket prices for the Champions League group stage certainly is. The same is true in enough MLS markets, not at all coincidentally the older MLS markets.
DC United barely drawing what passes for a crowd for their group stage games is as much a criticism of CONCACAF’s tournament as it is the home support. DC is a metro market that can stage neutral site friendlies involving Central American countries and expect a decent crowd. It’s a soccer market that’s not new to any of this. Breaking the Champions League in a place like DC is similar to getting it over in Mexico. It means that the tournament is hitting that broader mainstream audience, especially if they’re willing to pay domestic league prices for midweek international soccer.
Europe is already showing it might not be, at least not in enough numbers in enough places. UEFA can rely on its bigger show, letting Thursday nights come and go without it presenting any ultimatums for European club soccer as a whole. CONCACAF simply doesn’t have the same luxury. At some point, sooner than later, the CONCACAF Champions League has to change.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him email@example.com.
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