Today was supposed to be D-Day for fundamental changes to the Champions League.
The vote has been delayed, but the radical reform of the richest soccer club competition in the world still looks certain to happen.
The current cycle of the Champions League ends in 2024. When it does, UEFA, European soccer’s governing body, wants to introduce a new format.
In this format, four teams will be added to the competition (making it 36 instead of 32) and, rather than group stages, every team will be in a league table. Each club will play 10 matches, five at home and five away.
More matches, more money
So, why would UEFA, and its clubs, want to drastically change the most popular club competition in the world?
The short answer: money.
The proposed format will create 100 additional Champions League matches. This means more matches to sell to broadcasters, more tickets to sell to fans and more sponsorships to sell to brands. Crucially, it also means more matches between the biggest clubs.
Clubs in the Champions League, by and large already the richest on the continent, will be able to increase revenues and remain the richest. The competition changes will very likely entrench the inequality that already exists in soccer.
There is also, according to UEFA, an opportunity to improve the Champions League as a spectacle.
They argue that the new format will produce more matches that “matter” – as opposed to dead rubbers between eliminated team. And greater possibility for clubs to survive for longer in the competition and qualify for the knockout stage.
A change for the better?
It is fair to say the Champions League is ready for a refresh. While the knockout rounds are naturally the most exciting, too often the group stage is stale. The seeding system means it is easy to predict which two teams will advance and, even with the odd upset, they usually do across the six group matches.
Aside from ensuring the richest clubs stay the richest, there are other concerns with the new format.
One is the strain on players’ bodies from the extra matches. It is reasonable to assume the additional playing time, coupled with domestic and international schedules, will lead to more injuries. As a result, it is also reasonable to assume clubs in the Champions League will redouble efforts to hoard the best players to build squads of top-class talent.
Another criticism is the proposal to allow some teams to qualify based on their historical performance. This concept of “legacy clubs” is naturally favorable to those clubs, but likely unappealing to the vast majority of fans who prefer qualification based on merit. This is another way to keep the big clubs at the top table, giving them a safety net in case they fall from grace in a particular season.
A bet on fan tastes
From a commercial perspective, it is hard to blame Europe’s elite clubs for backing these changes.
And, while far from perfect, many see the new format as a compromise between UEFA and the richest teams, to ward off the prospect of a Super League, at least for now.
But perhaps the biggest bet UEFA and its top clubs are making, is on soccer remaining as popular in the coming cycle as it is today.
A glance a social media (admittedly not always the best barometer of opinion) reveals few fans enthused about a bigger Champions League.
There seems a fear the competition could lose some of its magic. In the same way the World Cup generates so much excitement because it takes place once every four years, the idea of big clubs playing each other could lose its alure if it happens on repeat.
Do fans truly want more matches? Will they shell out for tickets and (more) international travel to watch their team? Will they pay for a subscription to view all those extra matches when it comes to the crunch?
If fans don’t tune in, broadcasters and sponsors won’t pay up.
Many soccer executives I speak to say they are no longer only competing with other sports for attention. The battle now extends to other entertainment sources – like Netflix NFLX , YouTube and Fortnite – particularly among younger generations.
UEFA and its most powerful members have decided more matches is the best way to get the audience’s attention. It is a decision some consider is based on greed. It will be intriguing to see if the richest end up paying for it.