By J Hutcherson (Oct 22, 2019) US Soccer Players - As the stakeholders in European club soccer try to turn the Champions League into something different to coincide with the start of the next TV deal, it's worth considering the wider audience. There's plenty of talk about the lessening importance of the group stage and the foregone conclusion that most of the big clubs will advance. To hear the bigger clubs in Europe tell it, the competition only begins in February. What that means when the bulk of the games happen before then is a good question.
The Champions League has a long history on American TV, at least by European club standards. ESPN had the rights for years, showing the games live and occasionally later in the day. Fox took over for the 2009-10 season, with the Champions League heading to TNT last season. All of them faced an interesting scenario from a programming perspective across the United States. Big games with big clubs played at times when most people are at work or school. That severely cuts into any potential audience for live Champions League games in America. Moving the final to Saturday was a move as much about logistical awareness as anything else. A 9pm start in Europe is still 3am in Beijing and 4am in Tokyo, but at least it brings in the afternoon audience in North, Central, and South America.
With the Champions League the most valuable club competition on the planet, its audience is necessarily global. Just because only European teams can qualify doesn't limit interest at all. That's something those stakeholders are well aware of, pushing the idea of a de facto European league that they'd still call the Champions League. The pushback against that was quick and gained enough momentum that the elite clubs are now reconsidering their original plans. That would've practically closed off the Champions League, making it a set league with limited promotion from the Europa League. Teams that used to spend their summers trying to qualify for the Champions League would find themselves in the Europa or the new Europa Conference League.
UEFA is sticking with the last part of that plan. The Europa Conference League is set to start in 2021-22. In theory, it's a catchall tournament sitting below the Champions League and Europa League. The Champions League and Europa League would turn into lookalike competitions with 32-teams in a group stage. The difference is that the Champions League would have some teams unable to drop out of the competition over multiple seasons. It's no surprise that those unrelegatables are the biggest clubs in European soccer.
How this plays out could turn into the next point of contention in European club soccer. UEFA is well aware of what the Champions League is worth now. All involved wonder how much it could be worth as an almost locked league guaranteeing big clubs playing each other. What this does to domestic leagues much less European competition only became an issue after the plans became public. That initial pushback seems to have stalled those plans, but that they existed in the first place is an indication of where the game is heading.
Then there's FIFA, never wanting to be left out of the party. UEFA designs the Nations League for countries with Concacaf copying their model, and FIFA wants a global version. UEFA may end up in a fight over the future of European club soccer's biggest tournament, and FIFA once again wants a global version.
Yes, the FIFA Club World Cup has a history dating back to the turn of the century. No, it has never reached the level of importance its designers would've liked. With the current version of the Club World Cup still on the calendar and set for Qatar in December, FIFA is also set for a new version to start in 2021. That would be every four years, taking the Confederations Cup spot and obligating 24 teams including the Champions League finalists. As expected, it's a problem for Europe where the Champions League remains the biggest trophy in club soccer.
What this creates are interesting times between now and 2021. There's no doubt that the Champions League will change. With the third European club competition already announced, UEFA is pushing ahead in a new direction. Whether that will be its almost closed league for the elite may still be a somewhat open question, but it's still going to change. How teams and fans across the world embrace a Europa League sitting beneath an almost closed Champions League is a good question. So is the worth in pushing for that Europa Conference League title. There are already plenty of clubs across Europe that treat the Europa League group stage as an obligation.
Wherever it winds up is that basic scheduling question. Aside from the final, UEFA's current format makes things somewhat difficult in North, Central, and South America, and much more difficult for the emerging soccer markets in Asia. Moving all Champions League games to the weekend is something that may have to wait for a later cycle of negotiations, but it has to be on the agenda. FIFA too, has to come up with a way to sell fans all over the world on the importance of their revamped Club World Cup. Otherwise, it's the same basic problem. What is the point of all of these games on an already crowded international calendar?
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 at email@example.com.
More from J Hutcherson:
- Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Liverpool in the Champions League
- Outside England's big clubs
- Year two of the Campeones Cup
- What to watch in Europe this season
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