The media consultants Oliver and Ohlbaum published an interesting report today on reform of the Champions League. I have argued endlessly that the existing structure denies TV audiences something they would like, i.e. more games played among the biggest clubs, and in so doing limits the revenue potential of the competition.
What’s nice about the O&O report is that it quantifies the problem by surveying viewers about what they want to watch. Traditionalists argue that traditions should be preserved, but not everyone agrees and there is a demand for something else, e.g.:
-36% of Spanish fans think too many small teams participate in the Champions League group stage.
-50% of fans across the seven markets want to see a Champions League with more fixtures.
-70% of German fans would be interested in decreasing the number of teams in the Champions League.
-40% of UK football fans wish the UEFA Champions League was on every week.
Of course this does not prove that there is a case for change, but it does show that there is little consensus about maintaining the status quo.
The problem, of course, is how to change. Most of the controversy will surround access of the clubs from smaller TV markets and with fewer fans. An elite competition would mainly involve large clubs from the five largest TV markets: England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain. There is a case to be made that this exclusivity contradicts the principles of solidarity embraced by UEFA.
However, even if the logic of commercialism overrides this argument, there are still some big problems surrounding reform of the Champions League. O&O’s proposal, which is not untypical, is to turn the Champions League into an elite competition with three groups of 8 teams, playing 168 instead of 96 games a season. More games, higher quality means more TV money.
I see two main problems: composition and timing.
Composition: how many of the 24 would come from the Premier League? The EPL now generates about double the annual revenue of its next nearest rival (the Bundesliga) and this is starting to show in terms of the quality of the teams. There are at least 6 clubs that could justify an automatic slot given their size and following (two Manchesters, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham) without even considering the Premier League Champions Leicester. Without significant EPL representation the credibility of the competition will be undermined (not least with those EPL clubs that do participate), but with too many EPL clubs the competition is in danger of looking like EPL Lite.
Timing: O&O suggest four games a week: either two games a night on tuesdays and wednesdays, or four games spread over three nights (tuesdays, wednesdays and thursdays). This would certainly boost revenues in Europe, but a good deal of revenue growth in the long term is likely to come from outside of Europe – especially the Asian and North American markets. The EPL is particularly successful in scheduling weekend games that can command an audience in Europe, East Asia and North America at the same time. I get up on a saturday morning in Michigan to watch an EPL game that is playing early afternoon in England and showing in prime time in China. A midweek Champions League simply could not reach these audiences.
I see these as major problems for UEFA. Once upon a time I thought a European Superleague could transform football in Europe – nowadays I think it might generate some extra revenue at the margin but will not change the fundamentals significantly. And chief among those fundamentals at the moment is that the EPL is Europe’s Superleague.