The slow death of the Europa League

I’m a great admirer of football. I’ve watched nearly 300 games since the start of the English season in August. And one of the only opportunities to watch football on a Thursday evening is the UEFA Europa League (apart from the very rare Serie A match).

Europa League ball

And whilst I do indeed watch the occasional Europa League, I still cannot get excited by it.

During the 1970s, the UEFA Cup as it was then known was considered a worthy trophy, even if it was behind the Cup Winners’ Cup in the order of importance. Liverpool, Juventus, PSV Eindhoven all winners through that decade. Real Madrid won it twice in the 80s and Napoli lifted it at the end of that decade with a certain Diego Maradona.

Ajax, Juventus and Bayern Munich all won it up to 1996. But with the growing financial importance of the Champions League and its expansion at the start of the 1997/98 season (where some of the bigger leagues had two entries), Europe’s second trophy has lost a lot of spark.

UEFA tried to revive the tournament four seasons ago when they rebranded the UEFA Cup into the Europa League. A new logo, a new ball, and even an anthem was introduced. On top of that, the attraction of big club’s falling into the Europa League should they finish third in their Champions League group, would get a second bite at European competition. Hence, the Champions League holders Chelsea entering the competition.

The reason for your bigger clubs not taking this tournament too seriously is simply money. Chelsea have more to lose in attempting to win the Europa League and missing out on a top four finish in their domestic league and therefore next season’s Champions League. The same goes for teams in Italy and Germany whom I believe don’t take it so seriously on the whole.

Sides from La Liga appear to have a different take on this, winning 5 of the last 9 (Valencia, Sevilla x2 and Atletico Madrid x2). And they’re in a league where there’s only 2 Champions League spots up for grabs as Barcelona and Real Madrid take the other 2 every season.

Other recent winners, CSKA Moscow and Zenit St Petersburg, already loaded with money, but also in a league that doesn’t have a big reputation and may even see this trophy as a huge success. I hope that didn’t come across as me belittling those clubs or the Russian Premier League which sits eighth currently in the UEFA coefficient.

And here is the big gap between the financial benefits of making the Champions League and Europa League:

Champions League and Europa League prize money comparison

Make it into the Champions League group stage and you’re €8,600,000 richer. To earn that much prize money from the Europa League, you’d have to win the competition. Finishing runners-up, after qualifying through the playoff round, winning all six of your group matches and losing the final only earns you €7,500,000. And that’s 17 games including the final if you entered at the playoff round.

The difference between the prize money of winning a group game in each tournament is a big enough gap; €1,000,000 to €200,000. Drawing a group game in the Champions League is worth 2.5x winning one in the Europa League!

UEFA haven’t helped themselves by running the Europa League on a Thursday, the night after back-to-back nights of Champions League action. And for some clubs, two nights before their next league game. Often, managers feel they have no option but to rest a number of first team players. Harry Redknapp did so with Tottenham Hotspur last season, Martin O’Neill did with Aston Villa a few seasons ago etc. etc. Perhaps scheduling the two tournaments on different weeks would have some benefit. But in recent seasons, we’ve now got Champions League ties spread out over a four week period anyway for TV and advertising revenue of course.

And now compare the TV revenue for each of the participants in the Champions League and Europa League from last season and the financial difference becomes astronomical:

2011/12 Champions League and Europa League TV Market Pool comparison

Sources: UEFA.com an UEFA.com

On Thursday, Andre Villas-Boas fielded a strong Tottenham Hotspur side and they went out and thrashed Internazionale 3-0 at White Hart Lane. We shall the implications of doing so on Sunday when he takes his side to Liverpool for what will be their third tough match in the space of a week.

And how do the fans feel about the tournament? I don’t have television viewing figures, but here are the attendance numbers for teams compared to their domestic average attendance from this season:

Europa League vs Domestic League Attendances

Note: these attendances exclude games played on Thursday 7 March 2013
Average attendances taken from http://www.worldfootball.net

The average attendance has dropped by nearly 10%. The pattern you’ll see is the teams from the bigger leagues, notably the top 5 in the UEFA coefficient have lower average attendances in the Europa League than their own domestic leagues, and those in the smaller leagues having a higher Europa League attendance than their own domestic leagues.

Basically, La Liga, Premier League, Bundesliga, Serie A and Ligue 1 are far more important to fans than the Europa League. But the Europa League is seen as a more attractive league than say Ukraine, Romania and Greece etc.

Marseille’s average attendance in their 3 home Europa League games was 10,500, compared to the 33,000+ for an average gate in Ligue 1 where they are currently in third position. Fenerbahce, Borussia Mönchengladbach and AEL Limassol were obviously not attractive ties to the French fans.

As for the German side who rank third in the overall average table, down nearly 9% on their league attendance (compared to fellow countrymen Hannover 96, VfB Stuttgart and Bayer Leverkusen who were all down by more than 20%), perhaps they either have an enthusiastic fanbase… or the fact they had not competed in Europe for 16 seasons (since beating Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal in the UEFA Cup in 1996/97) may explain their high attendances in comparison.

A number of these games are broadcast on a terrestrial TV and even some on gambling websites legally which brings down the attendance by a couple of numbers. 8.05pm on a Thursday night may not help either, but the same argument could be said of the Champions League. Except that people like to make exceptions for such a big tournament.

Last night’s Europa League brought just 10 goals from 8 ties. Not a single tie saw both teams score, whilst there were two 0-0s. I’m sure that just good timing for me to criticise the competition more than anything else…

2 Replies to “The slow death of the Europa League”

  1. I don’t think theres a great drop in attendance especially as these games take place on Thursdays and not Sat/Sun compared to domestic league games. What is the difference in attendance for league games on a midweek games vs. EL???

    This competition still holds a lot of prestige too, don’t write out its importance for a number clubs, like as you highlighted La Liga takes it seriously and thats the strongest league in world football.

  2. The clubs in the big leagues not taking EL seriously are making a huge mistake because EL impacts the UEFA coefficient in a major way. By skipping EL and only focusing on CL, you’re hurting yourself in the end because CL spots will be reduced – and that’s what’s happening to Serie A.

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