When UEFA meets for its executive committee meeting this week in London there is a very good chance, I understand, that it will ratify a measure to boost the Europa League – from the 2015-16 season the winner of the Europa League will automatically qualify for the following season’s Champions League.
It is an idea that has been under discussion for some time. In February, at the general assembly of the European Club Association (ECA), which represents 207 European clubs, 61% of clubs said they would back offering the Europa League winner, or both finalists, direct access to the Champions League group stage.
The Europa League’s ‘problem’ lies in the differential in commercial terms between it and the Champions League. It’s the difference between 48 teams sharing Eur200 million and 32 teams sharing Eur1 billion, with all that implies for the motivation levels of the big clubs to select their best players.
The competition has had some bad press. The Guardian newspaper’s online match reporters only ever refer to it as ‘Little Cup’ (the Champions League being, of course, ‘Big Cup’). Some top clubs have grumbled about being ‘punished’ by having to play in it, while others have called it the ‘losers’ cup.’
With all the sniping, it is very easy to overlook one thing: for all its limitations, the Europa League has been a considerable commercial success. While romantics still yearn for a return to the purity of the European Cup, the forerunner of the Champions League, you rarely hear much nostalgia for the UEFA Cup, from which the Europa League evolved.
The competition morphed into its new identity gradually, over a period of six or seven years. First of all UEFA carried out a rolling centralisation of the sale of commercial rights to the UEFA Cup, laying the ground for a full re-launch in the 2009-10 season, with the Europa League brand, coordinated colour schemes, sponsored match ball, theme tune and the works.
After just three years, as UEFA, and its marketing partner Team, headed into the second cycle of commercial agreements, the competition had exceeded expectations on revenue, generating significant interest from sponsors, broadcasters and fans in Europe and beyond.
Research showed that among European football supporters, 75% of fans were “interested” in the competition. Global television audiences were rising by about 10% each season. Television rights fees were showing some remarkable leaps in value around the world – up in Africa by 500%, in the Americas by 200% and in the Middle East by 150%. Visibility on social media platforms was increasing by over 30% each season.
At the same ECA assembly in Doha in February, 75% of ECA members expressed their “satisfaction” or “extreme satisfaction” with the current structure of UEFA club competitions, with 92% believing that the Champions League and Europa League should continue to exist in parallel, heading off proposals for the Europa League to be scrapped and subsumed into an expanded Champions League.
This was followed by more reports of booming commercial revenues. TV Sports Markets revealed that media rights revenues in the 2012-13 to 2014-15 cycle were up by 20% on the previous cycle. Sports Sponsorship Insider revealed that sponsorship revenues were up by 14.5% on the previous cycle.
Watching last Wednesday’s Europa League final between Chelsea and Benfica it was easy to wonder what the problem was. It was a match of high quality between two of European football’s big clubs in a magnificent stadium. The whole thing looked great on TV and, of course, delivered a dramatic sting in the tail to keep viewers hooked till the end.
But here’s an insidious little question to close on: would Louis Kearns, the 11-year-old Liverpool lad who appeared on the winners’ podium with the Chelsea players, have got as far as shaking the hand of UEFA president Michel Platini, and almost collecting a winner’s medal, if this had been the Champions League final?
This is a personal perspective of Frank Dunne, editor of TV Sports Markets.