UEFA created the Champions League format in 1992, moving from the old knock out format to a Group Stage European competition. It is hard to believe now but then there were only 8 teams in the competition. The “star ball” design that still exists today is made up of 8 stars, representing those first 8 teams. The UK entrant then was Leeds United.
Whilst Leeds have slid down the rankings to League One, The Champions League has evolved into a 32 team behemoth that draws billions in TV and sponsor revenue and spans at least two nights a week of live coverage across the globe. The Champions League Final is now one of the most watched events on earth.
UEFA and TEAM Marketing have done a fantastic job keeping the product fresh, it was noticeable that this season is the first time the competition has used the LED advertising boards, a move away from the fixed static boards that were favoured for so long. However this is a fresh dimension that adds to the quality.
The Champions League is of course no longer a league for champions. In fact the major countries see up to 4 teams qualifying and this has caused much debate, but this “hybrid” event does still mean TV companies will continue to pay top dollar to more or less guarantee home market team participation.
We see sponsors of the Champions League that have been with the competition since its inception. Ford notably supported the Champions League in the beginning and launched the Ford Mondeo on the same night across Europe by being the combined event and TV sponsor of the live matches. PlayStation have also been on board since 1997 and stay loyal to this competition. Another interesting fact of this event was that it was several years after the launch of the Champions League that clubs were permitted to sport their shirt sponsor logos which were until then restricted as part of a very tight exclusive arrangement for the central sponsors.
The Premier League likewise was formed at the same time as the Champions League. Unlike UEFA who centralised all the rights (TV and event), the Premier League chose to centralise the TV rights but not the commercial rights. It was not until 1997 that a commercial director role was created, one which i was delighted to fill and it was certainly a challenge to get the clubs to buy into a more centralised approach than they had seen before.
Also in its 20th year the League continues to be a huge success. The landscape has changed enormously – in 1992 the Chairmen were the likes of “deadly Doug” Ellis, Ken Bates, Martin Edwards and the Rick Parry. Now the owners mostly come from Middle Eastern, American and Russian heritage, but of course this has brought huge rewards for the clubs.
On a commercial front there are now really 4 leagues within a league. Teams competing for the title, teams competing for a European spot, teams just happy to be in the League and those fighting relegation. However the matches still continue to surprise and the relegation system is one that keeps the interest in the League alive.
There has often been talk of a European Super League, removing the top clubs from their domestic leagues to play in a European League. However matches like Manchester United v Real Madrid are fantastic nights to savour when they occur on an irregular basis. UEFA have made changes to the European tournaments, indeed the old Cup Winners Cup was disbanded in favour of an expanded Europa League which itself has become an established and credible competition.
It will be interesting to see where the next 20 years take the most successful club competitions in the world, that is for sure!