I gather that I wasn’t the only person to be taken by surprise by the realisation that the last-16 round of the European Cup (it’s not a league and it’s not just for champions) was being staggered over four weeks, and a total of eight matchdays. This is in order that, if all four teams from one of the big countries makes it to the last 16 (which, as it happens, they haven’t this time), both legs of all eight ties can be televised without clashing. Yes, because what the Champions League really needs is to gain greater exposure and drag on a bit longer.
An immediate example of why this is bullshit has been conveniently provided. In the aftermath of the Crystal Palace-Aston Villa match last weekend, many people suggested that a draw had been a good result for Palace because they need the cash and there was a good chance the replay would be televised. Well, all those people clearly hadn’t noticed that on the night of the replay, ITV will be showing Inter vs Chelsea. The chances of them swapping that for the opportunity to show Villa winning off the back of a dodgy refereeing decision which Neil Warnock will moan on about until Christmas seem slim.
Now, that night should be free for the FA Cup, but instead the Champions League has decided to squat in midweek for a month. It’s personally irritating for me, because I might have been able to watch my own team otherwise. Ask most neutrals which match they’d rather watch and yeah, they’d probably rather watch Inter-Chelsea. But if we followed that logic all the time, we’d never see matches that didn’t involve Global Brand teams and this is, depressingly, the way that football seems to be heading.
One area where I can’t fault UEFA’s strategy is in maintaining a policy of selling at least some of the rights to terrestrial broadcasters. I admit, I’m partly in favour of this because I don’t want to pay for Sky: I don’t have a lot of spare money and I hate Sky. However, it’s undeniable that the Champions League has made itself the main place to see regular games involving England’s biggest clubs for free: UEFA have chipped away at it in recent years, going from the whole tournament being on ITV to Tuesday night’s games being on ITV to ITV getting the juiciest match of the week and Sky getting everything else, but UEFA apparently consider the policy important to keep.
Notably, they have also done so without being forced to or moaning about it – it’s their choice, apparently – and it can only have helped the competition’s prominence. The FA seems to have realised that the same is true of the League Cup, and that if you don’t screen the final on terrestrial TV then within a year nobody can even remember who won it. Seven million viewers for the Manchester derby semi-final suggests that it was a move worth making, and should be a lesson for those asking if the World Cup and European Championships should be allowed to sell some matches to subscription broadcasters. Do it at your peril.
Next time, I will explain how I’d organise football TV rights if I had Brian Clough’s posited job of Supreme Dictator of All Football.