Uefa will guarantee more places for clubs from Europe’s top football leagues in the Champions League, in a power shift towards the wealthiest teams in an effort to boost the appeal of the continent’s premier club tournament for broadcasters.
The move, which follows threats from wealthy clubs to create a breakaway competition, will ensure more places for teams from Europe’s largest television markets, but to the detriment of representation from smaller nations.
From the 2018-19 season, the top four performing leagues in Europe — currently Spain, Germany, England and Italy — will be guaranteed four places each in the Champions League group stages.
Under the existing system, the top three leagues receive three guaranteed spots plus a chance for an additional team to qualify through playoffs. The changes will mean there will be fewer places available for teams from the rest of Europe, though the final details will only emerge later this year.
Uefa described the changes as “an evolution not a revolution”, and stressed that clubs from all associations will still be able to qualify for the competition.
Theodore Theodoridis, Uefa’s interim general secretary, said: “We are happy that European football remains united behind the concepts of solidarity, fair competition, fair distribution and good governance.”
The changes were negotiated with the European Club Association, which represents the continent’s heavyweight clubs. Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, ECA’s chairman, said the reforms reflect “a serious and fair solution for European club football”.
One of the main drivers for change is the wealth of the English Premier League, with Spanish and Italian clubs in particular expressing concern about the growing financial dominance of English rivals.
This year, all 20 English top flight clubs will earn at least £100m from a £5.1bn broadcasting deal with Sky and BT. Clubs in the Premier League will further benefit from overseas television rights deals worth up to £3bn.
According to Deloitte, only three teams outside England — Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus — earned more than £100m in broadcasting revenues in the 2013-14 season.
Meanwhile, in June, Germany’s Bundesliga secured a four-year broadcasting deal with Sky and Eurosport worth a record €4.6bn.
These shifting finances led to the push among some clubs for a change in format of the Champions League in time for the 2018-19 season, when a new three-year deal to screen matches will begin.
Champions League money has become a crucial source of income for the largest European clubs, though top English clubs have become less reliant on these revenues thanks to bumper domestic broadcasting deals.
The biggest winners from Uefa’s changes will be Italy, gaining at least one more place in the tournament.
Other changes will suit Europe’s largest clubs. When judging how teams are seeded, “historical success in the competition” will be acknowledged.
That should help teams such as Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, AC Milan and Inter Milan — all Champions League winners in the past 12 seasons — that are missing from this year’s competition. It will ensure they get favourable draws if they qualify for the tournament in future editions.
Additional changes to how revenues are distributed mean these clubs will also earn more once they return to the Champions League.
People familiar with the negotiations have suggested Uefa had not wanted to move so quickly, hoping to institute major changes in time for the next broadcasting deal in time for the 2021-22 season, due to turmoil over its leadership.
Its president Michel Platini resigned in May after failing to overturn a ban from football. On September 14, Uefa will elect a new president at an extraordinary congress in Athens.
But Uefa has had to move despite the power vacuum in response to growing speculation that leading clubs would attempt to break away to form a “European super league” unless significant changes were made to the competition.
The Financial Times reported in July that Dalian Wanda Group, the property and entertainment conglomerate run by China’s richest man, Wang Jianlin, was backing plans to launch a rival to the Champions League. The proposals for a new tournament would guarantee more places for Europe’s heavyweight teams and a steep increase in broadcast revenues.
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