UEFA Europa Conference League: Is the new third tier of European football reaching a new audience?
The UEFA Europa Conference League is a new competition of European club football/soccer, a third tier below the Champions League and Europa League. With the UEFA Europa League group stages dropping from 48 to 32 teams but the Conference League adding 32 new places, the target of the competition is to increase the competitiveness of the Europa League and to give more teams the chance to play in European competition.
Having a local team in UEFA’s competitions does raise the level of interest among fans, and is a significant boost for clubs both in monetary terms and popularity: FC Sheriff of Moldova, for example, became the first Moldovan team to appear in the Champions League group stages and as a result the club’s social following grew by more than 500%.
UEFA’s attempts to broaden the participation of clubs and their fans from smaller countries is already having an impact: Of the 55 countries with clubs eligible to qualify for UEFA’s club competitions this season, only 19 have no clubs in the group stages of any competition. At the same stage in the previous season (2020-21) there were 27 countries with no representative club.
The Champions League, UEFA’s premier competition, is typically dominated by the top five European Leagues. There are 15 different nations in the group stages – the same as last season – but this does not guarantee diversity in the knockout stages: only one team outside of England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France has qualified for the knockout rounds in the past two seasons and there has been no winner of the Champions League or Europa League outside of these countries since Porto won the Europa League in 2011. While the Champions League remains popular with fans in all European countries, the new Conference league is an opportunity to better serve fans of clubs from outside the big five leagues.
In Ampere’s Q3 2021 consumer survey, around 20% of European consumers indicated they were fans of the Champions League and 15% were fans of the Europa League while for the Europa Conference League this figure was much lower at 6%. But awareness of the new competition is likely to be low at this stage, and even this smaller cohort of fans give the Conference league a similar European fan base as major competitions such as Ligue 1 and NBA.
UEFA’s prize money distribution for the 2021/22 season still puts a greater focus on rewarding clubs for reaching the top tier of European football with €2.032bn distributed to Champions League clubs, €465m to Europa League clubs and €235m to Conference League clubs – a 9% cut of the distribution. While this does make the Europa Conference League far less lucrative than its counterparts, the budgets of competing clubs are also generally much lower and the boost to finances of these smaller clubs could be significant.
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