November 18, 2017

The Thrill is Gone- Champions League fatigue

Our favourite European football mafia UEFA will “evolve” its premier competition again in 2018.

People at UEFA HQ in Switzerland have been very active over the last three decades. The Champions League of today is a completely different tournament than the European Champion’s Cup that ran from 1955 to 1992. Additionally, UEFA euthanized the European Cup-Winners Cup (1960-1998), turned the “used to be fun as hell” UEFA Cup into the barely relevant Europa League, and multiplied the number of Euro berths.

To be fair, we can’t blame UEFA for everything that’s wrong with football. Europe’s football landscape would have changed for the worse anyways thanks to the Bosman ruling, Pay TV, Internet, overseas markets, and greedy clubs, players, and agents.

UEFA’s duty would have been to protect the integrity of competitions and at least slow down a process that lead to all the madness, but UEFA instead has poured more gasoline onto the fire with every change they have made. The result? This season, UEFA has scheduled 192 group-stage matches from September to Christmas.

And I don’t see the point in watching more than ten of them.

UEFA Board of Directors Meeting?

As long as UEFA gets a piece of the action, they will aggressively modify competitions to the liking of the rich and famous. For now, all that shady stuff (remember Platini?) doesn’t hurt the bottom line. Viewership and attendance numbers for UEFA’s competitions look good across the board. Football will always sell in the EU, so who cares?

Boxing and Horse Racing also used to be extremely popular sports and somehow managed to become close to irrelevant in today’s sports media. While I doubt that Die Mannschaft, Bundesliga, and DFB Pokal games will ever be irrelevant in Germany, I think it’s possible that UEFA will lose casual German viewership and those who don’t care for Bayern or Dortmund. If nothing changes, Champions League games will get Europa League ratings down the road. I have experienced the downfall of Formula 1, the Champions League of racing, firsthand.

Formula 1: A cautionary tale for UEFA Executives

German drivers Michael Schumacher and Sebastian Vettel are #1 and #3 all time in “Most F1 Championships” won
German drivers Michael Schumacher and Sebastian Vettel are #1 and #3 all time in “Most F1 Championships” won

From the mid nineties to the early 2000’s, Formula 1 racing was the second-most-viewed sport on German TV. Only König Fussball was more popular. Michael “The Red Baron” Schumacher was something like the Michael Jordan of F1 back then. Roughly ten million Germans watched his races, on average. Most Grand Prixs went down Sunday at 1 p.m. on iconic European tracks where ticket prices were so reasonable that working class F1 fanatics could afford to visit a Grand Prix. Even though I have never been into motor sports, I watched at least five races a year, could tell teams and drivers apart, and kept up with the championship standings. That’s what happens when a sport is doing great and people become invested; they pass on their excitement to family and friends

Yas Marina Curcuit: What’s a luxury racetrack worth, if you fail to sell 50k tickets?

Back in those days, only five GP’s weren’t European. Today, a dozen races are outside of the EU. Which makes it hard for European core audiences to keep up with the various time zones of Malaysia, Brazil, and China. Ticket prices for the few remaining races in Europe are out of control; the cheapest seats at the German GP are 120€ this year.

The result of all that tinkering with a competition that was perfectly fine?

Annual F1 ticket sales for EU races have dropped from 890k to 490k over the last decade. Those lofty overseas expansion plans made by F1 officials? They didn’t pan out. Grand Prixs in Istanbul, India, and South Korea are already dead, while other new races fail to sell out. On television, F1 has lost a third (A THIRD!) of its global audience since 2008. I can’t remember at what point the casual viewer in me stopped giving a damn, but I haven’t watched more than five races total over the last decade. German TV ratings for Formula 1 are down 60% these days compared to the era of “Schumi’s” prime.

What does all this have to do with UEFA?

Well, the Champions League has also been “improved” a little too often, and in UEFA’s case, every so-called improvement widened the gap between the haves and have-nots a little further. Formula 1 can move races back to Europe, lower seat prices, and simplify the rules. Those are easy fixes, I’m afraid that the Champions League can not be fixed that quickly.

Inflation of Games and Death to Parity

Bayern vs. Barca in the Group Stage. Oh, how I miss those days!

Once upon a time, the Champions League was fun. In the 1998-99 season, the UCL included only 24 teams in six groups. Draws were straightforward, without any seed protection, making a group with Bayern, Barcelona, and Manchester United possible. What made it even better: Only group winners and two best runners-up advanced. Moreover literally every team besides Sturm Graz and Bröndby Copenhagen was competitive.

Here are Group B results from 1999, to give you an idea how fun it was:

  1. Juventus 8 points
  2. Galatasaray 8 points
  3. Rosenborg 8 points
  4. Bilbao 6 points

Oh how I miss those “there are no weak teams in UCL” days.

Since then, we have slowly gotten used to boring domestic leagues. What’s new is that the Champions League is now just as boring. Ajax in 1995 and Porto in 2004 were the last minor league clubs to win the Henkelpott. Barca, Bayern. and Real have won six of the eight most-recent titles, and some combination of them will appear in this year’s UCL semifinal for sure.

I have compiled the stats for the “Big Three” from both the European Cup (EC, 1955-1992) and the Champions League era; the results show how insanely bloated this competition has become.

Big Three (Bayern, Barca, Real) Combined Appearances :

EC era: 293 games over 37 years / 2.6 matches a year each
UCL era: 660 games over 24 years / 9.1 matches a year each

As you can see, UEFA is drowning us in UCL football, which is an issue. But the money-distribution model UEFA uses is a serious problem. UEFA has set up a system that hands teams from big nations a crazy competitive advantage over the small-nation teams. Whenever you hear about a 507 million Euro pot of UCL prize money, you need to realize that only a fraction of the overall TV revenue is awarded evenly. The biggest chunk of cash is split into national market pools. You can look at the distributions from the 2014-15 season here to get an idea how damaging that distribution model is to competitive balance.

In 2015, NK Maribor received 1.6 million from the tiny Slovenian national TV pool, while AS Roma got 35 million Euros from the big Italian TV deal. Both teams failed to advance from their group, yet Roma got paid 45 million, while Maribor only made 14 million. That dreaded “the rich get richer” crap has been going on for two decades now. Sorry to break it to you, but there are three teams who can win the UCL in 2017: Barca, Real, and Bayern. Man City, Atletico, PSG, Juventus, and Dortmund might be able to stop one or two of the Big Three, but probably not all of them. Those other 25 teams are tourists.

Real, Bayern, and Barcelona are the only teams who have consistently made deep UCL runs since 1992 without taking a long break. It’s not a coincidence that those three teams have all the good players and dominate everybody in UCL play, it’s actually by design.

“Number of UCL matches” translates nicely into money and prestige. It is imperative for any club to appear in as many UCL games as possible. The “Big Three” have made 660 UCL appearances since 1992, while seven respectable clubs (PSG, Dortmund, Juventus, Atletico, Man City, Schalke 04, and Arsenal) have appeared in just 646 UCL matches combined over the last 24 years.

All in all, UEFA reforms have ushered in a system that has destroyed competitive balance for good. If the NFL would give every Super Bowl winner the top three picks at the NFL draft, the Patriots, Seahawks, and Broncos would be just as dominant as UEFA’s “Big Three.”

Small UEFA nations were offered a piece of the TV pie for green-lighting the UCL expansions. They signed their own death sentence when they agreed. Adding the likes of Arsenal, Roma, or Schalke to the tournament has made it virtually impossible for clubs from smaller nations to make it out of the group on a regular basis. But can Schalke, Arsenal,or Roma at least give the Big Three a run for their money? Not really.

Win Loss Ratio of the “Big Three”:
EC era: Won 59%, Lost 24% / goals per game ratio 2.3 : 1.05 (+1.25)
UCL era: Won 57%, Lost 20% / goals per game ratio 1.9 : 1.01 (+0.99)

Apparently, it doesn’t really matter whether Trondheim or Tottenham plays at the Allianz, Nou Camp, or Bernabeu. Statistically, the Big Three win games at about the same clip. UEFA has added teams that are good enough to destroy Ajax and Maccabi, but bad enough to get embarrassed by Real and Barca. The big selling point for UEFA and the UCL has always been “everybody can beat you in the UCL.” But in reality, the tournament has become just like the domestic leagues. Top contenders like Bayern beat middling teams like Napoli, who handle the smaller clubs like Rostov with ease.

Give me back my Champions League

Group E looks wide open and intriguing, but those other seven groups do not and were basically decided at the draw in Nyon. You know who’ll go through by looking at the team names and UCL history. Since 2003, none of the “Big Three” teams have failed to make the knockout phase. In total, Bayern and Barca have each managed one group stage exit (2001 and 2003, respectively) while Real Madrid has emerged from the group stage every time Los Blancos entered one. The chances that one of the big dogs fails to go through in 2017 are therefore 0.028%.

The only Barca team to fail to advance from a UCL group.

Gambling analysts have already adjusted their lines according to the boredom. 2017’s UCL championship odds for Bayern (5 to 1), Real (6 to 1), and Barca (4.5 to 1) are incredibly low. A very respectable club like Borussia Dortmund gets 17 to 1 odds by contrast. Let that sink in for a minute. Other potential contenders like PSG (15 to 1) and Manchester City (13 to 1) have all the money in the world, but lack prestige. Sorry to break the news, but it looks like the “Big Three” will keep the UCL boring for a while. I don’t see a single club that has was it takes to challenge them consistently. The “Big Three” have stashed away most elite prospects. They’ll have their Lahm 2.0, Cristiano 2.0, or Iniesta 2.0 ready by the time the 1.0 versions retire. Joshua Kimmich, Renato Sanches, Alvaro Morata, Samuel Umtiti, and Pablo Alcacer are the future generation of European superstars. Guess which teams have locked them up for the future?

Same mistakes. Same end game?

Formula One lost a big chunk of its audience because it lost that “European motor sport” feeling. I can only speak for myself, but the Champions League has lost not only that “special occasion” flair, but it’s not even a real competition anymore. Please just wake me up in March or April when the first interesting matches will occur.

UEFA allowed all the money and talent to concentrate at a few clubs. If those clubs aren’t on TV, you have a problem. Only five million Germans wanted to see Leverkusen play Monaco in the 2014 UCL group stage, and only 5.7 million watched Wolfsburg’s Round-of-16 match-up with KAA Gent this year. A daily Telenovela “Gute Zeiten, schlechte Zeiten” and the German edition of “The Bachelor” drew more viewers that night in the crucial 18-to-49 demographic.

The saddest aspect of it is I can’t even blame the people who picked “The Bachelor” over UCL football. Why? Because people didn’t know which girl will receive a rose from the Bachelor, but they knew that Wolfsburg would beat Gent.

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