Gabriele Marcotti recently answered some questions on ESPNFC about some gnarly changes coming down the pipe for the UEFA Champions League, including the automatic qualification of 16 of the 32 teams in the group stages from the “four best leagues in Europe” according to UEFA’s coefficient.
If you think that’s bad, “It could have been far worse” according to Gab. There were other ideas too, including ‘wild card’ entries for ‘historically good’ teams that may have shit the bed one year (or five, LFC) and missed out on the top four spots in their respective leagues.
THE CHAMPIONS! indeed.
One of the reasons for this oligarchical arrangement has to do with the European Club Association, a powerful body which represents Europe’s richest football clubs. It has long used the prospect of a breakaway “Super League” to extort UEFA for more of the sweet TV cash they believe is rightfully theirs. UEFA meanwhile has been stuck trying to keep the biggest and best of Europe from taking their ball and going home, and trying to maintain some measure of integrity with European competition, which often features less well known domestic champs like Apoel (Cyprus) and BATE Borisov (Belarus).
Interestingly, Marcotti hints that the push to get more money out of the UCL is mostly coming from continental clubs that don’t enjoy the Premier League’s immense wealth, garnered from massive domestic and international TV deals. They need cash to compete, and the UCL is one of their better options.
But what if there were other superior ways for continental leagues like the Bundesliga and La Liga to compete with the Premier League’s wealth over the next few years, even decades?
One approach might be to encourage an increase in the level and quality of competition for their domestic rights deals. For example, this past summer, the German Football League (DFL) secured a €4.64 billion, four-year domestic TV rights deal for the Bundesliga, a whopping 85% increase over their previous broadcast rights fee. Though there were likely several factors involved, one of the big ones may have been increased competition, as rookies Eurosport—a pan European sports channel—entered the fray for the first time, securing the domestic rights for 43 matches a year. Though other leagues like La Liga and Serie A feature competition for bids, they are often from smaller, local stations like Italy’s Mediaset or Spain’s Mediapro (really original names, you guys).
Even so, ensuring the perfect conditions to get the highest domestic rights bids possible is mostly beyond a league’s control, beyond some slick marketing, maybe.
But as one prominent sports lawyer told me the other day, the real next frontier is in the international rights game. Globally the Premier League is a giant, as this Contexts mag piece points out:
The EPL is carried by 80 broadcasters in 212 territories worldwide, and an average game is watched by over 12 million people. With these astonishing numbers, the EPL has every right to call itself the most popular league in the world. In comparison, its closest rival, Spain’s La Liga, draws an average of just over 2 million fans per game.
Yet this battle is far from settled. Here are three ways in which leagues in Germany, Spain Italy, and France can compete with the moneyed guns of England.
For better or worse, English is increasingly the world’s lingua franca (sorry French). While it ranks third behind Mandarin and Spanish in the most native speakers worldwide, and second behind Mandarin in second language speakers, it is the most widely dispersed language on earth, the official language of 83 countries, and used in 105. Chinese may be the most spoken language, but English is what pilots the world over are mandated to learn in order talk to air traffic controllers.
This is where it might pay a league like La Liga or Serie A to put greater investment in English language coverage, either by developing a very high quality in-house wire service, or through investing in a something like Premier League Productions. Which brings us to…
This past winter, Christopher Flanagan profiled the little-known Premier League Productions, which, as Flanagan writes,”is the television company responsible for broadcasting England’s top flight to 185 countries overseas.” The studio is a marvel, with multi-camera angles for games, halftime commentary, even a 24 hour station option. Its commentators, graphics and announcers are familiar to audiences the world over, except England, of course, where Sky and BT Sport run the show.
The quality of PLP is perhaps one of the big reasons the Premier League is such a competitive property overseas. Flanagan quotes PLP head Nick Moody, who says other leagues are looking into replicating the model. “‘The Bundesliga came over here and we showed them around, did a presentation and gave them the experience of what we’re doing here. Other institutions are looking at it and thinking, ‘What we do we need to do? Why does it work for them? The other leagues are all trying to catch up, so our job is to look at what we can do to stay ahead.’”
This also ties into number 1. One of the unfair advantages of the Premier League is that it is based in a country with several major English language dailies all competing with each other for as many eyeballs as possible. For overseas audiences for whom English is a second or third language at the very least (or first in the US of A), this helps generate interest, far more offshoot coverage, and generally keeps the league first and foremost despite its quality relative to the other leagues.
Aggressive investment in a competitive, English language in-house league wire service might at least help generate some additional storylines to complement the often secondary coverage of continental leagues on major sites like ESPNFC and the Guardian. Additionally, creating sites similar to (the aggravatingly named) MLSsoccer.com can generate more in-depth, long form coverage from veteran English speaking journalists with an interest in the league.
Of course, there are a host of other factors that can help the domestic leagues compete, including more equitable TV money distribution models (La Liga has made great strides here thanks to an assist from legislators) and stadium refurbishments or construction jobs (see Juventus Stadium). While big, fat domestic deals may not be a realistic way forward, these leagues need not necessarily plunder the UCL to compete.