The UEFA club competitions – the Champions League (UCL), Europa League (UEL), and Europa Conference League (UECL) – have reached the quarter-final stage, with the remaining 24 teams set to compete for European glory in the season’s last stage. This year’s edition has delivered several surprises and exciting fixtures to look forward to in all three competitions. Several top clubs, such as FC Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain FC or Arsenal FC, have already been eliminated, resulting in some of the most popular and valuable players only watching the tournaments conclude from the comfort of their sofas.
On the other hand, clubs like SL Benfica, Royale Union Saint-Gilloise or Lech Poznań are still chasing their dreams. For clubs with a relatively low budget, triumph is only one part of the equation, as UEFA prize money is also a significant source of income which can heavily influence both their short- and long-term strategy.
Interestingly, based on Football Benchmark’s latest, 2023 March player market values, the combined value of the best 11 players still in contention is only slightly higher at this stage than the “dream team” of players who have already been knocked out from European competitions. Only six of the top 10 most valuable players in the world are still in contention (all of them in the Champions League).
Napoli and Benfica among major financial benefactors
Every club will fight to lift the trophy in triumph, but going as far as possible is also potentially crucial financially, with the size of the impact dependent on the competition and the clubs’ magnitude of revenue.
In all three competitions, the total prize money is broken down to four main elements: participation fees, sporting performance, UEFA coefficient and market pool. While the latter two are based on historic performances and the size of the domestic TV market, respectively, clubs can directly influence the first two elements with their on-pitch performance. In this analysis, “prize money” refers to the share of UEFA revenues distributed to clubs competing in UCL, UEL and UECL based on their participation fees and sporting performance (both in the group stage and the knockout stage) so far.*
The UCL is by far the most lucrative competition, with last year’s winner, Real Madrid CF, earning an estimated total of around EUR 130 million. Even if a club is eliminated by six losses after the group stage, they still get a minimum of EUR 15.64 million for participation. The direct impact of a good performance is well represented by the campaigns of SSC Napoli and SL Benfica: those two clubs have earned EUR 33 million and EUR 34 million, respectively, from their performance so far. Combined with the starting fees, both clubs have earned around 30% of their 2021/22 total operating revenues from UCL prize money alone. Qualification to the semi-finals would net an extra EUR 12.5 million for these clubs, or around 1/12th of their total revenues.
The two clubs’ impressive performances in the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals are even more surprising when taking into account their recent transfer moves. Despite losing top-performing players such as Darwin Núñez and Enzo Fernández, Benfica have managed to improve their competitiveness compared to last season’s. Similarly, Napoli parted ways with Kalidou Koulibaly, Lorenzo Insigne, and Dries Mertens during last summer’s transfer window, but have been able to bring in players such as Kim Min-Jae and Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, who are cornerstones of this season's success.
As for the UEL, the 2020/21 winner, Villarreal CF, have received a total of EUR 33 million for their campaign, less than 25% of what last year’s UCL winner collected. Manchester United FC have earned prize money of EUR 10.1 million, more than EUR 5 million less compared to that earned by UCL group stage participants. The minimal financial impact is stark in comparison to the 2021/22 operating revenues of the club (EUR 688.5 million) – a ratio of less than 2%. The same ratio is slightly above 5% for FC Juventus, yet the Italian club have received most of their prize money from the UCL group stage. For a club like Feyenoord, whose operating revenues were EUR 87.2 million in 2021/22, the impact is more significant with the prize money/operating revenue ratio being around 20% up until this point.
The difference between the UEL and the UECL is less significant, as last year’s winner, AS Roma, have made an estimated EUR 20 million in total during their UECL campaign. So far, West Ham United FC have earned around EUR 8 million of prize money, which is only 2.7% of their 2021/22 operating revenue totals. Even for a club like ACF Fiorentina, reaching the 5% prize money to revenue mark is difficult, which poses the question: is the Conference League worth it? While the direct earnings may not imply so, factors such as extra matchday revenues, fan excitement and additional visibility for sponsors are also important to consider outside of the chance of international sporting glory.
While the impact of prizes is not overly significant for most of the clubs in the “Big Five” European leagues, the case of Hungarian club Ferencvárosi TC shows the potential impact in less prominent leagues. The defending Hungarian champions have earned a total of EUR 18.5 million in 2020/21 from their UCL participation and around EUR 8.5 million from this year’s UEL performance, while their annual total operating revenues are estimated to be around EUR 25-30 million.
UEFA CHAMPIONS LEAGUE
Out of the 10 most valuable squads according to Football Benchmark’s aggregate market values (as of March 2023), only four clubs have reached the quarter-finals this year. Moreover, all four of these clubs have been drawn to the same side of the bracket. Notably, Real Madrid CF, Chelsea FC, and FC Bayern München have won the last three UCL editions, and, together with Manchester City FC, are the only clubs in the top 10 in UEFA’s current club coefficient ranking to reach this stage of the competition. In terms of financial power, the picture is similar – Manchester City lead the 2021/22 operating revenue ranking of all football clubs at EUR 730.8 million, with the three other clubs also all ranked in the top eight.
On the other hand, this is a major opportunity for the three remaining Serie A clubs and Benfica. According to 2021/22 total operating revenues, FC Internazionale Milano is the best placed at 14th (EUR 321.8 million), while the combined revenue of Benfica and Napoli is only slightly higher than the figure of Inter alone. Interestingly, this is the first time since the 2005/2006 season that three Italian clubs have made it to this stage of the competition. Even more surprisingly, Juventus FC is not one of them, as the club from Turin has once again failed to make it through the first elimination round. Also, Napoli have qualified for the UCL quarterfinals for the first time in their history, with only one defeat so far. Considering that Juventus, AS Roma and ACF Fiorentina are also still in contention in Europe, Serie A is the most represented league at the quarter-finals of UEFA competitions.
UEFA EUROPA LEAGUE
While the UEFA Europa League might only be the secondary UEFA competition, the Round of 16 has seen four out of the top 12 clubs by 2021/22 operating revenues, with two of them (FC Barcelona, Arsenal FC) already eliminated. The remaining favourites, Manchester United FC and Juventus FC, find themselves on the same side of the draw. However, in terms of squad value, the English club has a significant upper hand, valued at over EUR 900 million, around half a billion more than their Italian peers. United will face six-time winner Sevilla FC, while Juventus will take on Sporting CP, the team that knocked out Arsenal during the round of 16.
From a financial power perspective, the other side of the draw looks more favourable on paper, with none of the four clubs among the top 30 in terms of 2021/22 operating revenues. AS Roma will face Feyenoord Rotterdam in a rematch of the UEFA Conference League 2021/22 final, while the biggest surprises of the competition, Royale Union SG, are taking on Bayer Leverkusen. The potential financial incentive is massive for the Belgian side.
While the direct financial gains are far less substantial for top clubs, the UEL trophy offers another perk: qualification to next year’s UCL group stage. This is especially crucial for clubs like Juventus, Sevilla, or Leverkusen who are unlikely to qualify from their domestic leagues.
UEFA EUROPA CONFERENCE LEAGUE
In the second season of the new UEFA competition, another English club, West Ham United FC, can be considered the favourites – both in terms of betting odds and financial power. The London club is 15th in the world in terms of total 2021/22 operating revenues (at EUR 301.2 million) and has the highest valued squad in the UECL quarterfinals (EUR 454.2 million). However, they currently sit in the relegation zone in the Premier League, meaning that the UECL is both an opportunity to qualify for next season's Europa League and a risk in terms of player workload management. This is another crucial factor in the debate over whether or not the Conference League is worth it for such clubs. Meanwhile, Lech Poznań, the club with the lowest aggregate squad value in the UECL (EUR 34.90 million), will take on ACF Fiorentina, who are currently ninth in Serie A.
*Note: Excluding the redistributed money from group stage draws. UEFA awards EUR 2.8 million per win and EUR 0.93 million per draw during the group stage, resulting in EUR 0.93 million not getting awarded to any clubs in case of each draw. After the conclusion of the group stage, this “draw pool” gets redistributed to clubs proportionately to the number of wins, resulting in an extra income up to EUR 1.38 million per club.