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Why UEFA will guarantee Champions League places to the top leagues

UEFA has approved structural changes to the Champions League, with the biggest move being automatic group stage qualification for the top four teams from the top four leagues, beginning in the 2018-19 season. Gab Marcotti looks at how this came about. 

Q: So all has been revealed. Europe's rich get richer. The top four leagues will all have four guaranteed spots in the Champions League group stage. It's official now, right?

A: This pretty much confirms what some of us had previously reported. There are still some very minor details to work through, but UEFA interim general secretary Theo Theodoridis says it's done, and he would know. It's a brave new world.

Q: So did UEFA just lie down for the big clubs?

A: They would say they haven't. They had to strike a balance between the big boys, who make the Champions League more attractive to the guys who pay the bills -- broadcasters and sponsors mostly -- and the small and midsized associations.

"We had one target: Keeping the dream alive," Theodoridis said. "[That means] Allowing all countries to have access to our competitions and maintaining the champions path [to qualification.]. There is an impact [on smaller and midsized associations], I agree. But we minimized it."

Q: It's almost as if he's suggesting it could have been worse.

A: "Worse" depends on your point of view. Some of the things that were discussed at the request of the clubs would have made the Champions League an even more lucrative competition.

We're talking about wild-card entries for historically big clubs who fail to qualify; this year, for example, think Milan, Manchester United and Liverpool, who have 15 European Cups between them.

Or playing games on weekends, when they can reach a far greater global audience; Asia is asleep and North and South America are at work or school during Champions League games. Or, heck, playing games in other continents.

None of these things will come to pass at least until 2021, as Theodoridis noted. Nor will clubs be boycotting the Champions League or setting up their own competition.

Q: How real was that threat of clubs pulling out of the Champions League?

A: Theodoridis suggests it wasn't much more than a negotiating ploy. Others with knowledge of the talks said it was real enough to prompt this compromise.

Q: So I guess the big winners are the top four nations? That's Spain, Germany, England and, especially, Italy.

A: Yes, provided they stay in the top four. Italy's case is pretty telling. Right now, they have two guaranteed places, plus another in the playoffs for the third-place team in Serie A. But that side has been knocked out in the playoffs in five of the past six seasons. So, effectively, they're doubling their presence.

Q: But if the Italian teams aren't that good and can't make it past the playoffs, why should they be in the competition?

A: Great question. Because, I think, merit matters less here than money. Italy has the second-biggest Champions League contract, after England. Obviously broadcasters and sponsors will pay more if they know clubs are guaranteed a spot, rather than running the risk of getting knocked out in the playoffs.

Q: Sounds like an unfair system.

A: In some ways it is. But UEFA are also hoping folks will look at it a different way. Having more clubs from big leagues in the competition means the overall revenue will be higher; much higher, they hope. And that means there's more money to redistribute to clubs.

Q: Didn't you write last time that 35 percent of the revenue is distributed via that "market pool," whereby teams from countries with bigger TV contracts get a bigger share?

A: I did. And that's one thing that has changed. Only 15 percent of revenue will be allocated via the market pool. The other 85 percent will be distributed in prize money, including some 25 percent to be shared equally by all clubs who qualify. So that means teams from midsized leagues that do well in the competition will earn more in two ways: The overall revenues will, UEFA hope, be higher, and teams will get a bigger slice of the pie.

Q: That sounds more fair.

A: It is, although, again, the devil is in the detail. Part of that merit payment will be awarded based on a new coefficient system that will also track historical performance. Which means that, say, Ajax with their four European Cups will get more points than Leicester. It will be weighted and the details, which have not been fully defined, are set to be very complicated.

Q: What else have they come up with?

A: The other big change is that a new company is being set up, half-owned by UEFA and half-owned by the European Clubs Association (ECA), to run the European competitions. So rather than being indirectly represented via their national associations, clubs will effectively be in business with UEFA. (They sort of were before, of course, but now it's formalized.)

Q: Aren't UEFA having elections in a few weeks? Couldn't they wait until they have a new president before they take such a drastic step?

A: Indeed, they'll be electing a new president on Sept. 14 but, as Theodoridis said, they had been working on this for six months. And, he said, they had to go to market and pitch sponsors and broadcasters. The 2018-19 season is less than two years away and they had to get contracts tied up.

Besides, of the three guys running for president, Holland's Michael van Praag and Spain's Angel Maria Villar Llona sit on UEFA's Executive Committee, so you assume they have signed off on this. And the third candidate, Slovenia's Aleksandar Ceferin, is supposedly also on board.

Q: So that's that, then. I guess it at least means we won't have a breakaway European Super League.

A: At least until 2021, anyway. The hope, I think, is that these changes will boost revenue so much that everyone -- primarily the big clubs -- will benefit and be happy to the point that they'll forget about breaking away.

Q: Is that likely?

A: As the saying goes, you can never be too rich or too thin. I think history shows that when clubs get more money, they tend to spend it on wages and transfer fees. And because everybody is spending more, there will be some, even among the big clubs, who will be left behind. And that in turn means they'll grumble. And we may end up going through this whole thing all over again.

Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.


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