The Champions League money pool is enormous, and there’s a huge financial incentive for Super Clubs to banish the minnows,
The football competition’s money pool is immense. No wonder the Super Clubs want to exclude the minnows
It’s not surprising that Arsenal were an initial enthusiast for the proposed European Super League. When Arsene Wenger was manager, the London club was a mainstay in the UEFA Champions League (ECL) for over a decade. That didn’t stop Gunners fans moaning about the lack of silverware, and the Frenchman was ousted in 2018. Arsenal haven’t qualified for the ECL since, and the club won’t be in next season’s competition either.
Instead Arsenal have had to make do with the Thursday-night Europa League, which involves more games for a lot less money. Last season Arsenal didn’t make it beyond the Round of 32, and their take from the competition was €18m. Meanwhile Genk, a Belgian whipping boy in the ECL group stage, with one draw and five losses, walked away with €25m.
It’s not surprising either that Tottenham Hotspur are (or were) Super League enthusiasts too. The club reached the ECL Round of 16 last season and picked up €64m for their efforts. This season Spurs were confined to the Europa League, exiting at the Round of 16 stage. Their likely payout from UEFA will be c.€20m. Had manager Jose Mourinho lifted the trophy in Gdansk, there would have been an additional €12m to service the club’s enormous debt. Instead he got the boot, as the prospect of Champions League qualification receded too.
For big clubs like Arsenal, Spurs, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United, not being in the Champions League really matters in terms of company finances. That factor gives the Premier League its extra bite, as clubs desperately scramble to board the gravy train. However, the bosses of the big clubs that miss out must wonder why they’re excluded when the likes of Genk sup at the trough.
The Super League enthusiasm of some of the continental enthusiasts is driven by other factors. Charter members Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus almost always qualify for the Champions League. Not only that, but since the 2018/19 competition, these clubs are guaranteed a much larger share of ECL commercial income than minnows such as Genk.
Three years ago, UEFA introduced a ‘coefficient’ ranking system that places more emphasis on what the organisation calls ‘sporting merit’ to calculate the divvy-up of media and sponsorship income. The spread from the lowest to the highest-ranking club is based on a ten-year track record of participating in UEFA’s club competitions. Under this system, Real Madrid’s coefficient share for the 2019/20 competition was €35m while Genk received €9m.
Clubs in England, France, Germany, Spain and Italy also receive a larger share of the competition’s TV rights and sponsorship income. This makes sense, as the larger the domestic audience the more that audience is worth to advertisers. So while Genk had to make do with €1m from the media market pool last season, €20m flowed the way of Barcelona.
The 2019/20 Champions League wasn’t a banner year for Real Madrid. The team were knocked out at the Round of 16 but their take for the competition still amounted to €81m. Juventus exited at the same stage (€84m), while Barcelona (€100m) and Atletico (€91m) made it to the quarter finals. Meanwhile, newcomers RB Leipzig, who reached the semi-final, had to make do with €69m due to their small coefficient payment (€4m).
With the coefficient systems and the market pooling, Champions League finances are very much stacked in favour of clubs from large countries with storied football histories. That’s great for the insider clique on the continent, though less satisfactory for English clubs that don’t always qualify. For the Spanish and Italian clubs, the recurring Champions League income of €80m plus isn’t enough, as their share of domestic TV rights money is a lot less than in England.
Football clubs earn more from just qualifying for the Champions League than winning the Europa League
The way some Super League clubs see the situation is that total Champions League revenue (excluding ticket sales at club level) in 2019/20 was €2,420m. Competition costs were €170m, leaving €2,250m. From that pot, €120m was disbursed as ‘solidarity payments’ to clubs eliminated at early stages of the competition.
The 16 teams eliminated at the group stage of the Champions League last year played 96 matches and won 16 games between them. The five teams with no wins out of six games played received €140m for participation, the five teams with one win received €165m, and the five teams with two wins out of six received €200m. Ajax, with three wins out of six, received €46m.
From the Super League perspective, this total of €550m, plus the €120m solidarity funding, would be better directed to the big clubs, so they could play themselves more often and have more resources for coach and player investment. The likes of Club Brugge, Galatasaray, Genk, Slavia Prague and Lille (all of them zero wins from six in 2019/20) obviously see things differently. And so does UEFA. In the current format, the Champions League spreads the financial love and fan interest far and wide, even if the latter stages of the competition are inevitably dominated by Super League clubs.
The plethora of one-sided group stage games has prompted some reform. For the 2024/25 competition onwards, the Champions League will expand from 32 to 36 teams, with each team playing five home and five away games against different opponents. The top eight sides in the league will qualify automatically for the knockout stage, while the other 16 teams will compete in two-legged play-offs to join them. The latter stages of the competition will still be home and away knockout ties.
The revised format will add even more games to crowded TV football schedules, and is a step away – rather than a step towards – the Super League concept.
For English clubs, the format will mean 38 domestic games, 17 or possibly 19 games to win the Champions League, and six more to win the FA Cup (Carabao Cup too anyone?). That’s up to 61/63 games in a season, never mind the pre-season friendlies, and squad players playing internationals. Meanwhile, for the 2021/22 campaign the maximum games an NFL team will have to play to win the Super Bowl will be 21.
Financial logic dictates that owners of Super League clubs will be tempted to revisit the idea. However, without English clubs, the Super League would be a nonsense, and English fans’ visceral attachment to tradition will not be easily overcome.