Champions League is back with group stage – the predictable potential


The UEFA Champions League 2019/2020 season continues with the first matches of the group stage this week. The tournament started with the qualifying rounds in June, involving a total of 79 clubs from 54 associations. The 32 clubs competing in the group stage represent 16 national associations, with seven countries sending more than one club to the competition, and nine countries being represented by one club each. For the second UCL season, 26 teams qualified directly via their league position – according to UEFA’s actual country rankings, which determine the number of teams an association can send to the next season's group stages – and six teams (Ajax, Club Brugge, Olympiakos, Red Star Belgrade, Dinamo Zagreb and Slavia Prague) having made it through the qualification rounds.

Looking at the participants, basically we only see familiar contestants, with Italy’s Atalanta being the only exception, making their debut appearance in the competition. Porto are a surprise absentee: it is the first time after eight years that the 2004 winner Portuguese side missed out on the UCL group stages. Last season's semi-finalists Ajax almost missed out too – they had to join the play-offs and had to come back from a goal down to beat Greek Champions PAOK 3-2 at home, to win only 5-4 on aggregate. Austria’s Salzburg and France’s Lyon are the lucky ones: as title holders Liverpool already qualified by finishing second in the EPL in the past season, the reserved berth was given to the Austrian champions who could thus enter the group stage instead of the play-off round. (This time Austria’s Bundesliga was the association ranked 11th, which, according to UEFA’s actual country rankings, is to receive the reserved spot. If the same happens this season, the Dutch Eredivisie will be the beneficiary league to send their champions directly to the UCL group stages in 2020/21.) Similarly, Lyon got a direct entry to the group stages instead of the third qualifying round, as they received the berth of Europa League title holders Chelsea, who qualified for the UCL group stage via their domestic league 3rd-place finish.

The 32 teams were drawn into eight groups of four from four pots based on UEFA’s country and club rankings and with the restriction that teams from the same association cannot be drawn against each other. Interestingly, the four English teams managed to avoid the three Spanish giants, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid. Title holders Liverpool will face Napoli again (along with Salzburg and Genk) – last year the Reds won at home but lost the away tie in Italy. Last year's runners-up Tottenham will fight 5-time European Cup winners Bayern Munich, plus Olympiakos and Red Star Belgrade. 2018/2019 semi-finalists Ajax will face Chelsea, Valencia and Lille, while Barcelona have a tough group including former winners, Borussia Dortmund and Inter Milan, plus Slavia Prague. Premier League champions Manchester City have not made it past the UCL quarter-finals in the past three seasons with manager Pep Guardiola – this time, drawn alongside Shakhtar Donetsk, Dinamo Zagreb and Atalanta, they seem to have an easy start. Paris St-Germain and Real Madrid are likely to dominate Group A ahead of Galatasaray and Club Brugge. Group D promises competition from reinforced Juventus and Atlético Madrid along with Bayer Leverkusen and Lokomotiv Moscow, while Zenit St Petersburg, Benfica, Lyon and RB Leipzig form a group in which anything can happen.

The UCL group stages have become rather predictable, mirroring the supremacy of top clubs with the biggest economic power (as well as the dominance of the big five leagues). Last season only one side managed to progress from their group ahead of a club with a more valuable squad – Ajax finishing 2nd in their group, ahead of Benfica.

Nevertheless, UEFA’ distribution rules to the UCL group stages aim to offer more chances to smaller clubs. This becomes evident, when the 32 participants of this season’s UCL group competitions are compared to the 32 most prominent European football clubs according their enterprise value (EV), ranked by KPMG’s Football Benchmark team in May. Indeed, the UCL group stage setup overrules the pure power of big money and provides an opportunity for top clubs from less affluent leagues, as well. Although nine English Premier League clubs made the top 32 according to their enterprise value in the KPMG ranking, only four of them can enter the UCL. Similarly, while both Italy’s Serie A and Spain’s LaLiga can boast six clubs in the KPMG ranking, each may send only four teams to the competition. All in all, about half (17) of the most valuable 32 clubs are entering this year’s UCL group stages, which means that the remaining 15 clubs are not listed among the most valuable 32. Likewise, the UCL 32 clubs represent 16 countries, while KPMG’s top 32 most valuable clubs come only from nine countries.  

Participation in the Champions League is definitely one of the best ways to raise a club’s revenues and value, directly and indirectly, as well. The prize money on offer is staggering: the winners of this season’s tournament could cash in a total of EUR 82.45 million, provided that they win all their matches. On the other end, clubs will earn a significant amount even if they drop out from tournament by losing all their matches in the group stage: in that case, UEFA will pay them a fixed EUR 15.25 million starting fee. In the past edition, AEK Athens dropped out after losing all six of the games in their group and yet collected altogether EUR 16.8 million in prize money. Hoffeinheim, were also eliminated after three draws and three losses and with an income of EUR 18 million. If a team perform better, they will get EUR 2.7 million for every win and EUR 900,000 for every draw, and further amounts as they progress to new stages of the tournament. These are fixed payments based on participation and results of the prize money system, which also includes variable amounts, which depend on the value of the clubs’ respective TV markets and their UEFA coefficient ranking based on their historical achievements.

The chart below gives an indication of the UEFA UCL prize money, showcasing only the fixed amounts for maximum sporting performance.

Beyond the UEFA prize money, the indirect impact of playing in the UCL on a club’s revenues can be massive as well. The three home matches in the group stage alone, with likely full-house attendance and more expensive tickets can add a lot to clubs’ overall matchday revenues, which are set to grow with every further match as the team may progress. The international podium offers fame and visibility to clubs, and thus the potential to grow their commercial revenues: attract more lucrative sponsorships or negotiate better kit deals, especially if their UCL participation becomes more regular.

Furthermore, spectacular UCL performance can significantly increase the popularity of a club, which, in turn, would again help a club grow their matchday, commercial or TV revenues. Semi-finalists Barcelona gained 14.6 million new social media fans from the group stage to the end of the tournament in the past edition. Title winners Liverpool could add 11 million new followers on their social media channels from September 2018 to June 2019. Ajax’s fantastic UCL campaign (eliminating Real Madrid in the last 16 and Juventus in the quarter finals) helped them grow their social media followership by 3 million. Runners-up Tottenham gained 4 million new social media fans in the same period, including 1.7 million new ones in less than 2 months in the spring, when they eliminated Manchester City and then Ajax.

Consequently, major league clubs, along with top teams from smaller leagues, focus on the Champions League, and the competition has increasingly been dominated by clubs from the big five European divisions. UEFA’s distribution rule, which determines the number of teams an association can send to the group stages also guarantees a stable majority for the big five leagues (English Premier League, French Ligue 1, German Bundesliga, Italian Serie A, Spanish LaLiga), who can send 19 clubs to the group stage.

Big five league dominance becomes more obvious in the last stages of the tournament. In the past five years, in the last 16 stage only a fifth of the clubs (16) were from a non-big five league, and 10% in the quarter finals – equivalent to four clubs in 5 years (Porto twice, Benfica and Ajax). Ajax was the only club that made the semi-finals in 5 years, while the last time a team from a non-big five league made it to the final was in 2004, when Jose Mourinho’s Porto won the trophy by defeating Monaco 3–0 in Gelsenkirchen.

Some other changes are introduced this year by UEFA to enhance the quality of the game and the fan experience. 

The video assistant referee (VAR), introduced in the UCL in the past season from the round of the last 16 onward, is being used this year in the competition from the last qualification round onwards.

The group stages bring a cap in ticket prices for away fans. UEFA introduced a EUR 70 cap for away tickets (and EUR 45 in the Europa League) as a reaction to complaints from supporters in the past several years and a recent public plea from the supporters’ trusts of Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool, the four English finalists of last year’s UCL and Europa League, who had loads of problems getting tickets. Liverpool and Tottenham fans received 17,000 tickets each for the Madrid final in the 68,000-seat Wanda Metropolitano (and, similarly, Arsenal and Chelsea fans got altogether 12,000 tickets of the 68,700 seats in Baku). The cheapest Category 4 ticket for the UCL final cost EUR 70, with Category 3 tickets priced at EUR 180, while the top two tiers were significantly more expensive at EUR 450 and 600. In addition, hotel prices in Madrid and flights to the city from English airports surged by up to 683 % after the finalists were identified. The handling of the travel logistics, and ticket pricing and allocation by UEFA were criticised even by managers Jürgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino, while the two fan groups called for protection for fans to stop hotel and flight prices from being "forced up". Tottenham showed a live screening of the final at their stadium in London for a full-capacity audience.

This season’s final will be played on 30 May at the 76.000-seater Atatürk Olympic Stadium in Istanbul, Turkey, the venue that hosted the legendary 2005 UCL final between AC Milan and Liverpool.