Offside, 28 September
What is to be done about European football's dwindling viewing figures? The Champions' League could do with some corrective surgery - but it might be time to put the UEFA Cup out of its misery.
Is televised European football becoming a turn-off? TV viewing figures certainly suggest so, as armchair fans seem to have had their fill of saturation football coverage.
Ratings for televised Champions’ League games have declined rapidly across Europe over the past two years – with audiences falling by 30 percent in Italy and 50 percent in Germany. BBC1’s coverage of Ipswich v Torpedo Moscow in the UEFA Cup on 20 September drew just 4.1million viewers – fewer than a Horizon documentary on BBC2 and a Poirot repeat on ITV. ‘Mummified Pakistani woman more interesting than Ipswich – Official’, chuckled the Football365 website (1). Channel 5’s UEFA Cup coverage of Maritimo v Leeds later that same night fared even worse – pulling in a paltry 1.3million viewers.
So is the football bubble about to burst – as football’s Euro-sceptics have been predicting with monotonous regularity over the years? I don’t think so. For a start, there are now far more televised European games than there were a few years ago – and it would be churlish to expect games in the early stages of European competitions to attract high TV ratings. Okay, okay, more people watched Horizon than Ipswich, but the Tractor Boys are hardly Manchester United. Four million viewers may be relatively modest by EastEnders’ standards, but for a club with no support outside Suffolk whose average home gate is 22,000, it’s not a bad achievement.
That said, the current format of European football competitions could do with some revising if it wants to get bums on couches. The expanded Champions’ League format has produced far too many meaningless games in the early stages of the tournament. Manchester United, for example, progressed through the group stages without playing particularly well for the past two years. In effect, the real competitive stuff only kicks in at the knockout stages. So, how can the tournament be improved?
European football’s governing body UEFA increased the number of teams in the competition from 16 to 24, in an attempt to head off the threat of a breakaway European super-league. One solution would be to have just one qualifying group phase, but with larger groups of, say, six or eight teams, which could heighten competition for quarter-final places.
UEFA, acutely aware of the potential loss of sponsorship and advertising revenue if TV viewers switch off and do something less boring instead, are said to be considering changes to the Champions’ League format, with head of marketing Lars-Christer Olsson telling a press conference in London that ‘we will be looking to reformat the Champions’ League to maintain interest in different markets’ (2).
But while the Champions’ League just needs a bit of re-calibration, the same cannot be said of the UEFA Cup, which is fast becoming Europe’s Worthington Cup. According to Leeds manager David O’Leary, ‘We have to do something with the UEFA Cup because it is getting weaker and weaker’.
The UEFA Cup used to be a very tough competition to win, because – national champions apart – the top Italian, Spanish, English and German teams all took part. The expanded Champions’ League has now siphoned off the stronger teams leaving the UEFA Cup to be contested by a rag-bag of also-rans that includes entrants from the Intertoto Cup (Europe’s Leyland DAF Van Trophy) and the ludicrous Fair Play lottery.
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