David Owen: Why the Champions League needs some surgery

By David Owen

Thursday’s group stage draw provides the perfect illustration of why the Champions League needs reform.

Group E – CSKA Moscow, Bayer Leverkusen, Tottenham Hotspur and Monaco – looks wide open. Group G – Leicester City, Porto, Club Brugge and FC Copenhagen might not be clear-cut if the English newcomers fail to approach last season’s level. Group B – Benfica, Napoli, Dynamo Kiev and Besiktas – could conceivably bubble up nicely. Otherwise the list of qualifiers looks all too predictable.

At least the nature of the surgery required is pretty obvious.

Turn this Round of 32 into a knock-out stage that can be done and dusted before Accrington Stanley get knocked out of the League Cup and while the rest of us are still tinkering with our buckets and spades.

Then settle back for a pre-Christmas group stage, consisting of four groups of four, replete with heavyweights. That should in turn leave plenty of time for a theatrical build-up to what should be four mouth-watering quarter-final ties, with no more than one match per night.

If the value of the competition is to be ramped up significantly from present levels, as is probably necessary if the creation of a Super League is to be forever postponed, then UEFA needs to generate more from major non-European markets such as China and India.

Just as the aspirational classes in these markets have come to covet heavily-promoted western brands – Gucci loafers, Louis Vuitton handbags, Johnnie Walker Black Label whisky – so what they want from international football competitions, I am convinced, is high-octane clashes featuring the biggest European brands and players – Barcelona, Manchester United, Real Madrid and their closest challengers.

Such a format would produce more of these footballing blockbusters (as, of course, would a Super League). It follows that it would be worth more in markets where entertainment value, supplemented perhaps by the content’s appeal as a betting medium, is everything. For that reason and that reason alone it should be a direction that UEFA is considering taking.

It has been evident for some time that the Champions League contained the seed of its own destruction. This is in the shape of the so-called ‘market pool’ which ensures that clubs from the richest national European markets earn substantially more from the competition, once they have qualified for it, than others, irrespective of how they actually perform. (I wrote about this in detail last year: http://www.insideworldfootball.com/2015/05/22/david-owen-how-uefa-s-cash-rules-keep-cl-domination-to-clubs-from-big-rich-countries/).

By awarding the most places to countries whose representatives have been most successful in previous years, UEFA has further stacked the odds in favour of the top few clubs from England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain. And by making it very difficult for the giant clubs in those countries not to qualify for Europe’s premier club competition year after year, they have helped to undermine the competitive balance in those national leagues.

The more revenue the Champions League has generated, the bigger the effect. Only the Premier League has managed to ward off the worst of its consequences because of a) the enormous global value of its own broadcasting rights and b) its policy of distributing income far less unevenly among its participating clubs than other leagues.

For many others, the consequence has been a bizarre distortion in the traditional shape of the European football season, with its gradual build-up in intensity to reach fever pitch around April or May. For clubs who happen to be based in relatively small national markets, such as Glasgow Celtic, their most important games of the season, certainly in financial terms, might come in August. In stark contrast, some of the biggest clubs in the biggest markets – Bayern Munich, say, or Paris Saint-Germain – might not be seriously tested on the field of play until March.

Football’s money men have been lucky until now in that supporters have not by and large been put off by the proliferation of one-sided contests that is a consequence of financial structures designed to eliminate risk rather than foster competitive balance.

If the tedium of knowing in advance the probable outcome of the vast majority of matches involving their teams starts significantly to erode the appeal for fans of current competition structures, a breakaway European Super League – perhaps excluding England – will, in my opinion, be inevitable.

David Owen worked for 20 years for the Financial Times in the United States, Canada, France and the UK. He ended his FT career as sports editor after the 2006 World Cup and is now freelancing, including covering the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the 2010 World Cup and London 2012. Owen’s Twitter feed can be accessed at www.twitter.com/dodo938.