Dessert Comes at the End
Football's administrators must beware killing the golden goose
A couple of years ago I was invited to a post-Champions League-game dinner near Stamford Bridge. This was a strictly unofficial affair, a schmooze-fest organised by an influential member of the extended football industry, sprinkled with agents, marketing men and wealthy fair-weather fans. These kind of get-togethers have become commonplace on European nights in London. Everybody flies in for a game and a business deal or two.
I remember that particular evening at a small Italian restaurant for the conversation I had with a US media executive. This was a man who had lived in Europe for most of his life, had worked in an important position at a top Serie A club and was now running London's most important football marketing company. Yet he was still puzzled by the way things were done in Nyon. "The problem of the Champions League is that the big clubs don't play each other often enough," he said. "They could make so much more money. I don't understand why they don't just set up a European Super League. Make it like the NBA."
Stefan Szymanski, co-author of Soccernomics, made the same point in an Evening Standard column last September. "The problem with the Champions League is simple — it does not pit the best teams against each other on a regular basis," he wrote. "If they all belonged to the same European League, for instance, they would each have played (top) teams 50 times over five years — more than five times as often as they do currently. And if this is what the Champions League provided, the broadcasting rights would probably be worth nearly five times as much."
To prove his point, Szymanski compared the commercial value of the competition with that of the Premier League. "Last year Uefa generated about £850 million from the sale of the rights. The competition involves 125 games played in total, giving an average revenue of around £6.8 million per game. The current English Premier League deal is worth around £1.2 billion per season, and 138 games are broadcast, giving an average revenue of £8.7 million per game, some 27 percent more than the Champions League generates." His conclusion was that "weak teams" and "a perverse sense of egalitarianism" were holding back the European competition's earning potential.
Szymanski's argument is very persuasive. But there's a slight problem with it: his figures are all wrong. Nearly half of the Premier League's TV income is generated outside the UK, where every single one of the 380 games — yes, even Stoke City v Blackburn — is shown live, not just the 138 games that are available to UK domestic audiences. The average commercial value of a Premier League game is therefore a more modest £3.16m, less than half of what the Champions League rakes in per match. Or, to put it the other way round: the Champions League is, in relative terms, commercially more than twice as successful as the biggest domestic league in European football.
It's important to mention at this point that the comparison is a little skewed to begin with: Champions League income includes centralised marketing and advertising deals that go beyond the Premier League's sale of naming rights. Yet the case for reform of the competition seems a lot less compelling when the true extent of its financial power becomes apparent. It is clear that it works perfectly well as a product, small fluctuations in attendance figures notwithstanding. But would it perhaps work even better without the likes of Debrecen and Hapoel Tel Aviv, as my US friend and Szymanski happen to believe?
It's hard to know without putting it into practice first. Fortunately for us, Uefa did try just that a few years ago. From 1999-2000 to 2002-03 a second group stage was introduced. The idea was that putting all the big guns together for another round-robin without the pesky minnows would increase relevance and marketability. Yet reactions to this more elitist tranche of the competition were muted at best. Clubs and viewers soon complained about too many matches and with nothing at stake for teams in third and fourth place, the dreaded dead rubber problem became much more prevalent than it is today, when relegation into the Europa League manages to keep most group games meaningful until the final round. The second group stage was dropped in 2003 and hasn't been missed since.
It all goes to show that less can sometimes be more. This might jar with US thinking about sport, but keeping international competitions so open that the best teams rarely meet — or possibly don't at all — has been football's secret master-stroke. It turns the latter stages into must-view events. The Champions League brand plays heavily on the exclusivity and scarcity of its product.
A look at the World Cup shows that infrequency can have even a more powerful emotional pull than the objective quality of the product. Economists like Szymanski could easily argue that it makes no sense to wait four years for a competition filled with obscure second-rate outfits. But football audiences obviously value the one-off drama and romance of a (theoretical) giant-killing more than guaranteed, regular heavy-weight clashes. The fact that Germany and Brazil, the two most successful international teams in the history of the game, have only crossed swords once (the 2002 final) has not hurt the marketability of the competition one bit.
Cultural factors also militate against a European Super League. While the US like their leagues highly regulated and governed by collective spending caps, Europe's sporting landscape is oddly neo-liberal: princes are allowed to become paupers (and vice versa), empires are won and lost in the space of a couple of years and no one is safe from the drop. It's pure, unfiltered capitalism, in other words, and ironically enough the one sector of European public life where belief in the American Dream, the overnight triumph of the underdog, is truly widespread. For all the talk of tradition and aristocratic clubs, football understands the appeal of an upwardly mobile society, the sexiness of "it's not where you from, it's where you at". Bayern Munich, for example, weren't even admitted to the Bundesliga when it was formed in 1963 but managed to win the European Cup Winners' Cup against the mighty Glasgow Rangers four years later.
Critics of the current format — which manages to include lesser teams in a system that affords an element of protection to bigger teams and is thus virtually fail-proof — can't have it both ways. They moan about staleness and perceived predictability yet propose the same teams should slug it out every other week over the course of a number of years while an exciting blend of upstarts — say the Bayer Leverkusen of Michael Ballack, Zé Roberto, Lucio, Bernd Schneider and Dimitar Berbatov in 2002 — would have to hide in the shadows of a secondary competition for half a decade until they were admitted to the big time. It's obvious that such an arrangement would only cement the old order: small teams could never keep their best players and would thus remain small forever.