8 ways to save the Europa League
It's safe to say the Europa League is generally met with little more than a half-interested raising of eyebrows.
The standing of Europe's secondary competition is arguably at an all-time low. Big sides who have missed out on Champions League qualification often regard it as little more than an irritant, distracting them from the next domestic campaign – nothing but a colossal inconvenience until Easter at the earliest, should they manage to crawl through the group stage.
Put simply, the Europa League needs a kick up the jacksie – and we mean with real, sensible action, rather than some hackneyed re-branding and a few added bells and whistles. Finally they awarded the winners a place in next season's Champions League – hooray for Sevilla – but here are a few suggestions...
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1. Revert to a straight knockout
Perhaps the biggest complaint of the Europa League is the number of matches the winning club must play – 17 if they enter at the play-off round, where the likes of Borussia Dortmund, Ajax and Southampton began (and swiftly ended for the Saints) their odyssey this season. For comparison, the top-ranked Champions League competitors only have to play 13 games.
You can see why UEFA introduced the mini-league to the secondary competition – in an attempt to copy that Champions League cash cow which guarantees each competitor three home games.
Trouble is, the fans aren't buying it – literally. Many teams play in half-empty stadia, while others would be pleased to be that full.
Even on a run to the semi-finals last season, Napoli only averaged 20,964 in the 60,000-capacity San Paolo; PSV (league average 32,645) had as few as 19,350 rattling around the Philips Stadion; in 2010, Juventus's three home group games were watched by 10,837, 12,162 and 6,992.
The group games just aren't attractive. A knockout competition would eradicate dead rubbers and make every match a must-see (causing much more competition among broadcasters), while also streamlining the whole competition – much to the delight of managers who wouldn't have to play their second strings in order to concentrate on finishing higher up the domestic league. Speaking of which...
2. Redistribute money more evenly
When Celtic waltzed to the 2003 UEFA Cup Final, it was said they didn't actually make any money until the final itself. Similarly, speaking in 2001, then-Ipswich boss George Burley expressed concerns that his side would actually lose money by taking part in the competition, rather than turn a profit.
Nobody's saying Europa League contestants should get as much as Champions League participants but currently the divide is frankly startling. This year's winners will be rewarded with around €13 million from their entire campaign exploits, only just more than the €12m doled out each of to the 32 Champions League group-stage teams (with €1.5m per win, €500k draw on top) and miles short of the total €45.5m that will be pocketed by this year's Big Cup winners.
Splitting the money more evenly would not only add as a greater incentive to teams competing in the Europa League, but would also help ramp up competition on the domestic front: qualifying for the secondary competition would revert to being a bonus instead of a booby prize.
3. Move the matches to Tuesday
One of the Europa League's biggest problems is that it is seen as an afterthought to thes Champions League. After two nights watching Barcelona, Real Madrid and BATE Borisov, there's substantially less appetite for a third night featuring the continental competitions' ugly sisters.
The solution is simple – switch the Europa League games to Tuesday evening and have the Champions League spread over Wednesday and Thursday. This will allow Joe Public to whet his footballing appetite by watching up-and-coming players at teams on the rise, before tucking into the main course.
Due to the way the Champions League matchdays are divided up (with protagonists currently switching between Tuesday and Wednesday), it would also mean fewer domestic matches would need to be switched to Sunday the following weekend, because nobody likes a weird kick-off time. Which brings us to...
4. Scrap 6pm kick-offs
Since 2010, UEFA has staggered Europa League kick-off times in order to allow broadcasters to show back-to-back matches. That's sort of understandable (although they don't do it for Champions League games), and clearly the broadcast revenue is important to the participating clubs, but it's a bit of a ball-ache for the fans, some of whom, we're told, have jobs and stuff...
5. Don't parachute in the Champions League failures
There can be few more disheartening sights for a club who have battled through the Europa League group stages than seeing their path blocked by eight sides who have failed in another competition. It seems preposterous that a team who crash out of one competition can crash land in another. The "relegation compensation" does little to dampen the notion that the Europa is anything more than a poor relation.
6. Keep thinking outside the box for final venues
The Champions League final needs to be held at a venue with a great history, or at least a great big corporate entertainment zone. The Europa League can be a bit more footloose, alternating between heartlands and pastures new, and the results are promising.
Taking the 2011 final to Dublin was a masterstroke: it was the first time Ireland had hosted a major European final, while the same was true of Romania for the 2012 final in Bucharest.
That was followed by trips to the new homes of traditional powerhouses Ajax (2013) and Juventus (2014), while this year it's Basel's St Jakob-Park before Sweden's Friends Arena in 2017. This provides an increased sense of occasion, while also spreading the wealth, and indeed love, across the "UEFA Family".
7. Ditch the 'anthem'
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There are many Champions League traditions the Europa League would do well to incorporate, but the over-dramatic pre-match ditty is not one of them.
While the Champions League theme sets pulses racing and causes the hair on the back of the neck to stand up, its Europa League equivalent only conjures images of consolation competitions and Colin Murray mumbling incoherently on Channel Five. After all, the climactic Champions League anthem lyrics are "Die Besten, les grandes Équipes, the champions"; what's French for "cup winners" and German for "also-rans"?
8. Lose the stupid name
"Consignia? Scope? It's the Post Office and the Spastics Society!" Had Alan Partridge's rant against renaming taken place a few years later (and if he had given half a hoot about football) he may well have included the Europa League.
Of course, if we're losing the 'league' element of the competition, it makes perfect sense to revert back to a cup-based moniker. How about – oh, we don't know – the UEFA Cup?