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Changes to Champions League may end European domestic leagues as we know them

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Alarmist headline? Not really.

UEFA Champions League Trophy Tour presented by Heineken - Mexico City
Be all, end all?
Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images

Ever since the Premier League was created as an entirely separate financial entity from the English football pyramid in the late 80’s, and especially once it started play in the 1992/93 season, there have been whispers around Europe about creating a European “super league”. This theoretical league (at one point in the late 90’s, it was going to be called the Europa League, until UEFA rebranded the Cup Winners’ Cup) would do for the European bigshots across the continent what the Premier League did for the English bigshots.

A super league would effectively wall off the garden full of money and keep it flowing exclusively to the big clubs, leaving the smaller clubs to more or less fend for themselves. Over the years, the idea of a super league has come and gone, and every time it’s come up, it has, for one reason or another, been discarded, and domestic leagues have carried on more or less as they always have.

Guess what? The concept of a super league is back. And this time, it’s back in a form that a lot of people might be interested in. UEFA and the European Club Association, the body representing the interests of European club teams, have apparently been talking about a major revamp of the Champions League that would, at first reading, more or less destroy domestic leagues as we know them today.

Hyperbole? Not really. By “destroy”, I don’t mean “cease to exist”. There would always be a domestic league, but check out the proposed changes to the Champions League, and tell me how a domestic league would look if this came into being (emphasis mine):

  • A promotion and relegation system that would replace the current qualifying structure ensuring a more closed structure where the biggest and richest clubs are always involved
  • Only four of 32 teams relegated out of the competition ever year
  • Matches being moved from midweek to the weekend
  • More matches for all teams (previously, a minimum of 14 were proposed)

I admit I come at this from a position of bias - I am probably the last person on earth who likes domestic leagues more than cup competitions. So I’m kind of opposed to this from the jump, just on general principle. But even a more objective observer than I can see, if these changes are enacted, that domestic leagues would really be a shell of their former selves after this.

Using England as an example, if you cleave off the Big Six, you’re left with, just to oversimplify, the 14 current PL teams and, to continue to oversimplify, let’s call it the top six Championship teams. The Premier League would still have promotion and relegation, so there’d always be a decent mix of good Premier League teams and bad ones, good Championship teams coming up and super-bad PL teams going down. On the surface, everything would be the same, at least mechanically.

With a larger, weekend Champions League, though, there are three immediate problems I can see:

  1. If Bayern Munich is playing Manchester United in Europe on Saturday morning, are significant numbers of people outside Leicester or West Brom going to watch Leicester v. West Brom in England, which is also airing on Saturday morning? That’s just one example picked at random, but it points to a bigger issue. If an expanded Champions League exists, guess what doesn’t? Billion-pound Premier League TV deals, that’s what. All the money currently flowing to the Premier League for TV rights will all of a sudden start flowing to the Champions League, leaving the Premier League to fight among the Bleacher Report Lives and FloSports-es of the world, which...ugh.
  2. Say you’re a fan of Everton. Everton, in a Big Six-less Premier League, is all of a sudden a big ol’ fish in a much smaller pond. So then let’s say Everton, in the first season of expanded Champions League football, wins the new, weaker Premier League at a stroll, by like 15 points, and....gets promoted to the expanded Champions League, never to be seen again. Then, the next season, another team steps into that void, runs the table, and gets swept up into the CL, ad infinitum. Yes, there would probably be a cap on the number of teams from any one country in the new CL, and this probably wouldn’t happen in every single PL season, but any time a club gets big, they would jump to the CL at the earliest opportunity.
  3. The Premier League - along with all the other European domestic leagues - will no longer be a destination for elite players. All the money, all the TV exposure, and all the endorsement potential will be in the Champions League, just as it is in the Premier League today. The PL will still attract players, sure, but the players it attracts will be younger, less skilled, and sold to one of the Champions League teams at the earliest opportunity because that’s how Premier League clubs will have to fund themselves if this comes to pass.

For all this, I am not anti-change. I am not anti-modernity. I am, however, very sad that if these changes come into existence, the game that I know and love will change irrevocably, and I’m not at all convinced that said changes will be for the better as far as the game goes. Domestic leagues are a ton of fun, and are the backbone of the game in Europe; moving that backbone to an effectively closed Champions Super League won’t be the end of the world, but it will, at least for me, markedly decrease interest in that world.