By Huw Lloyd
When the Champions League winners are decided at the Ataturk Stadium in Istanbul come May 2021, plans to radically revamp Europe’s premier football competition from 2024 into the ‘Swiss model’ are highly likely to have been approved by UEFA.
Originally planned to be signed-off at a UEFA Executive Committee meeting in March 2021, formal approval on the revamp has been pushed back due failure of the European Club Association (ECA, a body representing leading European clubs) to agree with UEFA the future model for how Champions League broadcast and commercial rights are to packaged, sold and marketed.
Notably, however, despite widespread disagreement within the wider football community over the impact the reforms may have on competition entry, match jeopardy, the complexity of the new group stage and the domestic football calendar, the ECA and UEFA are in alignment over the proposed changes to the competition itself.
The plans are now expected to be approved at the next meeting later in April.
History of the Champions League format
The format of Europe’s premier club competition has been revamped several times since the introduction of the straight knockout European Cup in 1955. When top European clubs became dissatisfied that potentially lucrative runs in Europe could be over after just one tie, a round-robin group stage was introduced by UEFA in 1991. From 1999/2000 to 2002/2003, a double group stage format was introduced. The format reverted to single group stage format from 2003/2004 season and has remained to present.
What is the Swiss model and what changes are proposed?
The proposed reforms are reported to be the brainchild of the Dutch ex-goalkeeper and current Ajax CEO Edwin Van der Sar. The reforms are to replace the current home-and-away round-robin group stage of 32 teams before a round of 16 knock-out with a 36-team ‘Swiss-model’ league following by a Round of 16 knock-out.
Within the 36 team league, each team will play 10 matches against 10 different opponents, five home and five away. After 10 group stage fixtures, the top eight clubs will progress to knock-out stage. Teams placed nine to 25 would enter a play-off to determine the additional eight clubs to make up the round of 16. From the round of 16, the two-legged ties will remain leading to the showpiece final.
The fixtures will be based upon seedings and performance within the competition; with the theory that all teams play an equal number of games against high-, medium- and lower-ranked sides.
The Swiss model is based upon the premise that teams play a set number of games rather than facing every other team in the league and is widely used in sports such as chess where league, group-stage or straight-knockout formats are ill-suited.
Under the reform plans, clubs finishing in the top eight will be guaranteed qualification for next season’s tournament. Furthermore, three of the additional four places generated in the competition are to be allocated to clubs based upon historical performance in the competition. For example, under this system a place could be allocated to Liverpool for the 2022/2023 Champions League should the Reds finish outside the top four in the Premier League.
These changes would increase the number of games in the Champions League proper from the current 125 to 225.
Why the Champions League revamp?
The primary driver of the reforms to create the Swiss model is the desire of elite European clubs to increase the number of European matches held, which in turn should drive revenue growth both from increased matchday income from the home matches, and overall from the broadcast deals as the competition has more games to sell.
Home European matches are valuable for the European elite as they sell out at prices exceeding standard domestic ticket prices. For example, Manchester City generate an estimated £2.5m per home European match relative to under £1.7m per home domestic match, whilst Liverpool generate in excess of £3.5m for Anfield European fixtures. During the 2018/2019 competition, Manchester United generated an estimated £4.7m per home Champions League tie.
The new competition would see clubs guaranteed five home European ties as opposed to the current three, thus increasing matchday revenues by between £5m – £10m per season regardless of competition performance.
A related driver is that the consensus among the ECA is that by increasing both the overall quantity of group stage matches and the number of elite club vs. elite club match-ups, higher value broadcast deals could be struck. Within the UK, BT Sports currently pays around £300m per season for exclusive rights to the competition. Globally, it is reported that UEFA received over £2.4bn for Champions League rights. In comparison, Sky and BT Sports pay over £1.4bn for domestic Premier League rights. Based upon these figures, figures within the industry consider it feasible to command uplifts of 20-30% of the current packages (representing upwards of £500m). Split evenly amongst the 32 Champions League clubs, this conservatively equates to an extra £15m per season.
Another reform driver is the desire of top European clubs to preserve their place at the top table. With increasing competitiveness for Europe domestically, clubs from England in particular are keen to move away from a solely merit-based qualification to introduce a degree of insurance should a club miss out in a particular season.
A final key driver is the potential moving of hosting some European fixtures on the weekend. Whether by design or necessity, the revamp could see a number of European matchdays being placed on the weekend. Major clubs are keen on this as it will enable more international fans to travel to European matches. This, in turn, would assist commercial revenue growth. For example, Juventus fans from Albania flying in for a tie against Real Madrid would likely spend heavily within the clubs mega-stores relative to Turn-based season ticket holders.
Criticisms of the Swiss model Champions League
The proposed revamps have received widespread criticism from the football community.
A major criticism concerns the allocation of up to three places based upon historical performance, with some considering this the antithesis of the fundamental sporting merit principle which has underpinned qualification for European tournaments since their introduction in the 1950s. However, it is important to note that the number of places open to sporting merit qualification remains at 32, and it is only the additional places that are to be used as insurance policies for the established Europe elite clubs.
Whilst it may generate unjust circumstances such as Liverpool finishing seventh with Everton in fifth but the Reds qualifying for Europe ahead of their Merseyside rivals, it remains that if a team finish in the Premier League top four they will be wearing stars on their shirts sleaves come next season.
Another criticism of the plans is the removal of jeopardy from the group stages. For example, Barcelona may lose to Juventus and Bayern Munich in the expanded group stage; however, their route to the round of 16 will be contingent on them beating their ties against mid- and lower-ranked teams. In such circumstances, some feel the elite club match-ups would become glorified friendlies and lose broadcast appeal. Whilst this is accepted to be highly likely, the competitiveness and jeopardy in the current group stages in the Champions League’s current format is also low with groups typically going to seeding.
Only on the rare occasions that three European heavyweights are drawn in the same group — such as Barcelona, Tottenham and Inter in Group B of the 2018/2019 competition – is serious jeopardy introduced to Champions League games before February. A case in point is the relatively tame matchups between Barcelona and Juventus in this season’s competition.
Another criticism of the reforms is around the impact they will have on the domestic game. Crystal Palace chairman Steve Parish has been vocal in this regard, stressing that the likely removal of League Cup that will be required to free up calendar would have determinantal impact on finances lower down the domestic game due to the contribution the League Cup makes to the EFL’s broadcast revenues.
A final, and arguably the strongest criticism of the reform plans, is the complexity of the new group stage. Under the current system, Champions League group stages have a fundamental logic; teams play three opponents home and away, with the top three going through. If you get 10 points, a club would be unlucky to not qualify for the round of 16. However, under the new system clear, home and away ties are lost and European fixtures become a random laundry list of clubs with a likely loss of clarity around what is required to qualify to the knock-out stage.
Why the delay?
The ECA, who have significant influence over the UEFA Executive Committee decision-making process, are in alignment over the proposals; with opposition primarily coming from clubs who traditionally do not regularly qualify for Europe.
The sticking point at the March UEFA Executive Committee meeting was how the broadcast and marketing rights are sold and distributed. Currently, UEFA centrally sells and distributed through the agency TEAM. However, clubs feel they themselves are better placed to advertise and sell such rights. It is understood that UEFA has reached position where they are happy to cede some control over such rights, the Nyon based governing body would want to retain a “golden veto” over any governance structures; something which the ECA clubs are resistant to.
The verdict: Killing the Golden Goose?
Reform has been a constant in European competitions, as evidenced by the introduction of the UEFA Conference League from 2021/2022. However, there is a feeling that the proposed reforms represent the most fundamental shake-up of the competition since the initial introduction of the group stages.
Since the introduction of the four-team groups stages in the 1990s, the Champions League has come to establish itself as the preeminent and most-watched club competition globally, and the trophy now rivals the World Cup as the highest honour in football for many players.
With reform being pressed on UEFA by the ECA under the constant shadow of a potential breakaway league, it remains to be seen if the Swiss-model Champions League is a smart commercial move or is a miscalculated revamp.