Will Champions League Format Changes Quell Threat of Euro Super League?

  • Big changes are coming to the UEFA Champions League format in 2024-25
  • It will have no more group stages, and just one league of 36 teams
  • There is, however, still the threat of a breakaway European Super League
Man City winning the Champions League
Changes are coming to the format of the UEFA Champions League. [Image: Shutterstock..com]

No group stages in 2024-25

With the 2023-24 UEFA Champions League now down to its final four, the focus on Europe’s most prestigious club soccer tournament has never been greater.

Two-legged wins this week for Borussia Dortmund, PSG, Bayern Munich, and Real Madrid have seen Los Blancos emerge as +150 favorites to win the tournament with Paddy Power, with Bayern second-favorites at +275.

Viewing figures for the competition are approaching record numbers and, as a product, it remains one of the most saleable in the sporting world.

Yet a big format change is planned for next season; one that will see the current group stage disbanded and replaced with a single league of 36 teams.

each of the 36 teams will play eight games

It’s not quite as simple as it sounds as there clearly won’t be a home and away format against each of the other 35 teams. Instead, each of the 36 teams will play eight games – four home, four away – against eight different opponents.

In order for every team to play against a similar mix of opponents, each will be ranked into one of four seeding groups – based on their UEFA coefficient – and will then be drawn to play two opponents from each pot; one home, one away.

Once this stage of the tournament has been completed, the top eight in the league will automatically qualify for the round-of-16. Those finishing in places 9 to 24 will be drawn against each other and will play two-legged playoffs to determine the other eight teams in the round-of-16.

The bottom 12 teams in the division of 36 will not drop down into the Europa League, as with the current format, and, instead, their European soccer season will be over.

Money, money, money

So, what has led to this seismic change to something that was already considered the greatest club tournament in the world? Why change the format of something that was already raking in millions for UEFA and the same for Europe’s soccer elite?

The answer, all too predictably, comes down to money. Or, in this case, a lot more of it.  

On its most basic level, the new arrangement means more games and therefore more revenue. The existing format has 125  games in a season, while the 2024-25 tournament will have 189. This is partly down to clubs playing eight games in the first phase compared to the current six but also because of the four additional teams, as there are currently 32.

However, it also means that the European soccer season will be almost non-stop, compared to the current set-up, which has a natural ‘winter break’ – the group stage concludes in early December and the knockout phase doesn’t start until March. This clearly impacts domestic schedules, which will have to accommodate a minimum of two extra games – four for those teams who enter the playoffs.

almost-constant threat of a breakaway European Super League

So, for the clubs and the national associations, there is a price to pay for the revised schedule, albeit not one that will concern UEFA. For them, there is an added incentive to drive more money into the coffers, namely the need to stave off the almost-constant threat of a breakaway European Super League (ESL).

It was something that first came to the fore in October 2021, when it was announced that 12 clubs – Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United, Manchester City, Tottenham, Inter Milan, AC Milan, Juventus, Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Atletico Madrid – would be prioritizing a new, lucrative ESL at the expense of UEFA competitions.

Fan backlash

The proposal was met with a massive fan backlash across Europe and, one by one, the clubs announced their withdrawal from the project until eventually only two were left – Real Madrid and Barcelona.  

It won’t end there though. The huge sums involved are such that the project will bubble away in the background until such time those leading the project think it’s time to strike again. They were further emboldened in December when the  European Court of Justice agreed that both UEFA and FIFA had overstepped the mark in 2021 when they actively blocked a pathway for the creation of the ESL.

the two Spanish giants need a Super League even more than it needs them

It feels only a matter of time until they re-launch, especially as the two Spanish giants need a Super League even more than it needs them. Both are on the financial precipice and desperately need the multi-million dollar boost that the ESL would bring.

But has the reformatted Champions League done enough to at least reduce the threat of a breakaway?

The answer is almost certainly no. But what it has done is buy UEFA some time and arm them with a bargaining chip that, until now, they have been unable to take to the table. Namely, that they recognize the need for the Champions League to generate even greater levels of revenue and for the elite clubs to earn a greater share.

For now, peace has broken out and in the short-term at least there is a reformatted tournament to look forward to. With fewer dead rubbers than in the current iteration, UEFA are hoping the overall entertainment level will get a timely boost.

But as for the tournament’s medium and long-term future, that’s impossible to call. The best we can offer right now is watch this space.

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