UEFA Champions League is back – prospects of an unpredictable season

20.10.2020

The UEFA Champions League (UCL) 2020/2021 season continues today with the first matches of the group stage.

The impacts of the coronavirus pandemic have shaken up the schedule of the last phases of the past season and also the start of the current one. Given that the last season’s final was played on 23 August instead of the end of May, the group stage will now also start later than usual. Nevertheless, the timeline of the upcoming phases of the tournament follows the usual, pre-Covid framework: the six match-days are to be completed by mid-December, the knockout ties scheduled for the spring remain unchanged, and the final is to take place on 29 May at Istanbul's Atatürk Stadium, from where last year’s final was moved to the Lisbon mini-tournament due to the pandemic. The global crisis triggered some special rules as well. UEFA recently decided to allow fans – and only home supporters – to return to stadia for tournaments they arrange with the number of spectators capped at a maximum of 30% of the respective stadia’s capacity. However, these measures are subject to the decision of local authorities. Additionally, matches may be played at a neutral venue if travel restrictions interfere with logistics. Clubs can list a maximum of 12 players on the substitute bench, and use five substitutions during a game, with a 6th allowed in extra time.

Nonetheless, despite all the cautious planning and the set framework, the coronavirus pandemic has left a great amount of lingering uncertainty around the campaign. Can fans attend games and can clubs collect any matchday revenues? Can the schedule be adhered to throughout the tournament? Would any disruption in the timeline impact other revenues? These are some of the key conditions that can change as the pandemic dictates the future course.

Beyond the fame and glory, the Champions League has always been a blockbuster for football clubs. For example, the semi-finalists of the 2018-19 edition hauled in staggering sums for their UCL performance: title winners Liverpool collected altogether EUR 111 million via the tournament, which constituted 18% of their total operating revenue in that season. Runners-up Tottenham booked EUR 102m (19%), while Barcelona cashed in EUR 118m (14%), and Ajax generated EUR 79m (39%).

These revenues come through the UCL prize money system, which includes fixed payments based on participation and performance, and also variable amounts depending on the value of the clubs’ respective TV markets and their UEFA coefficient ranking based on their historical achievements. (The current, 2018-21 3-year prize money cycle is to be renewed from the next season, but it is yet to be seen if and how the fund will be affected by the coronavirus pandemic.)

The fixed amounts alone are massive: the current prize money system guarantees EUR 82.45m for the winners of the tournament, provided that they win all their matches. On the other end, clubs are guaranteed a significant amount even if they drop out in the group stage by losing all their matches: in that case, UEFA will pay them a fixed EUR 15.25m starting fee. As a point of reference, for smaller clubs even that minimum fixed revenue would be worth, in their case, a massive windfall: e.g. such income would be more than half of the total annual revenue for a team like Hungarian champions Ferencváros in their past financial year.

The income through UCL participation has been predictable so far, but it cannot be taken for granted this season due the overall uncertainty caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

While UCL ties usually attract full-house attendance and generate significant matchday income for clubs, it is unpredictable if and how much clubs can earn from ticket sales this season. UEFA’s recent decision to allow 30% stadium capacity attendance is only a recommendation for local authorities. According to current local regulations, fans are banned from stadia in six out of the 15 countries that are represented in the group stage, some countries are only allowing 10-20% capacity, others permit a fixed number of fans to attend, while in Germany, it depends on the infection rate of the individual city whether fans are allowed to attend games. Moreover, unpredictability is increasing as the fight against the pandemic may require local rules to change over time. 

Borussia Dortmund, for example, were allowed a 20% capacity at their Westfalenstadion for the past several weeks, however, if there was a game in Dortmund today, no fans would be permitted, as the current infection rate in the city is above the allowed limit. If the club may let a 20% capacity again at their first home game in the tournament, against Zenit next week, they would earn only around EUR 373,000 for the game, calculated according to their EUR 1.87m average matchday income in the 2018-19 UCL season. Juventus would see an even greater depletion of their matchday revenues: as clubs in Italy now allow 1000 fans to attend, Juve could only collect about EUR 70,000 per game in the tournament, compared to an average of EUR 2.89m in 2018-19. Barcelona cashed in an average of EUR 2.96 million at their UCL home games during the same campaign, while they would earn nothing this season, as fans are currently banned from stadia in Spain. The same would apply, of course, to Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and Sevilla too, and also to the four English teams, while stakeholders in English football are fighting hard to persuade the British government to reverse its ban on stadium attendance.

In addition, while commercial and broadcasting deals have been contracted for this UCL season, any major disruption in the tournament schedule may impact those revenues too. If ties were forced to be canceled, or two-leg fixtures of the knockout stages to be reduced to single-match ties (as happened in the last edition), sponsors may want to be reimbursed for their losses due the decreased exposure.    

“Many football clubs are currently in dire straits, amid the decline and uncertainty of all revenue streams caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Their matchday incomes are collapsing through the absence or limitation of stadium attendance. Certainty over future commercial and broadcasting revenues is also susceptible to the pandemic. Consequently, it would be pivotal for participating clubs to be able to complete the current UCL season ideally according to schedule, and secure those revenues on offer, even if with limited audiences allowed into stadia,” Andrea Sartori, KPMG’s Global Head of Sports commented.

The 32 clubs competing in the group stage this season represent 15 countries, with seven national associations sending more than one club to the competition, and eight domestic championships being represented by one club each. This is the first UCL season in which three Russian clubs will play in the group stage. 26 teams qualified directly via their league position, while six teams – Ukraine’s Dynamo Kyiv, Hungary’s Ferencváros, Russia’s Krasnodar, Denmark’s Midtjylland, Greece’s Olympiacos and RB Salzburg from Austria – made it through the qualification rounds. Along with French side Rennes, who are now playing for the first time in Europe’s top club competition, we can see three more clubs – Turkish champions İstanbul Başakşehir, Russia’s Krasnodar and Midtjylland from Denmark – making their debut appearances in the group stage of the tournament.

Some astonishing differences are apparent when looking at the 32 teams by squad value. In Group D, Liverpool’s squad is 25 times more valuable than Midtjylland’s team, while there is a 39-fold difference when Barcelona and Ferencváros are compared in Group G. The most balanced group in this regard is Group F, where Borussia Dortmund are only six times more valuable than Club Brugge. The past two seasons showed that all the clubs who progressed to the last-16 from the group phase had higher overall squad values than those who could not qualify for the knockout stage – the only exception being Ajax in the 2018-19 season, when they progressed, despite having the 3rd most valuable squad in their group. If this tendency prevails, the current squad values may predict the final outcome of the group stage again, with Porto and Atalanta being the most likely teams able to overcome the odds this year.

Despite all that uncertainty, social media is another area, where clubs can expect definite gains: the UCL campaign will surely boost clubs’ popularity through their social media channels. Looking at the last eight participants of the past season, we can see that spectacular performance at the tournament can indeed significantly increase the fame of a club. The relative growth is often more significant for clubs who had been less well-known and popular for an international football-loving audience before their UCL campaign.