Saracens have just regained their European crown at the expense of holders Leinster. Anyone watching the game could not have failed to notice, be it on the corner flags or the obligatory bottles of “champagne” the Saracens players were spraying over each other after their victory, that Heineken were the sponsors.
The competition is now officially known as the Heineken European Champions Cup.
Started when the sport went professional in 1995, the tournament soon became known as the Heineken Cup (except in France where a peculiar ban on alcohol advertising caused it to be labelled the H. Cup) and remained so until 2014 when the competition became the European Champions Clubs Cup.
This was after two years of acrimonious wrangling between the English and French clubs on the one hand, and the Celtic unions on the other. It was the Anglo-French clubs who wanted to do things differently. One of their arguments for doing so was that the competition, though successful, was not being exploited enough commercially by the current organisers, who were an off-shoot of the body that ran the Six-Nations and effectively controlled by the national unions, not the clubs.
Eventually the clubs won the battle, the competition was re-organised (the number of participants was reduced from 24 to 20) and a new world of sponsorship was promised. Heineken would still be on board but only one of five major blue-chip sponsors. Now five years on that promised land has somehow not been reached and in a marvellous piece of déjà vu Heineken are back, alone, in the sponsors driving seat.
So, what’s that got to do with football? More specifically, with the European Champions League. Back in 2012 one of the English rugby clubs’ major beefs was that because the competition had 24 clubs, current qualifying rules allowed too many minnow competitors, particularly from Italy. Now in a week which has seen four English clubs get to football’s European club finals after momentous second leg come backs in Liverpool and Amsterdam, comes news that the so-called elite clubs in mainland Europe see what is happening and fear for their futures.
La Liga, Serie A, and the Bundesliga together with Ligue 1, cannot generate anything like the Premier League’s TV revenue, and their elite clubs desperately need to significantly increase their income from the Champions League.
Changes due to come into effect in 2014 will mean a Champions League with four groups of eight teams, with guaranteed places for 24 elite clubs, disruption to domestic leagues and fewer opportunities for clubs outside that self-selecting elite.
Central to the new format is the desire of guaranteed new revenues from television and sponsorship for the traditional powerhouses in the major leagues.
Similar noises were being made by rugby union’s revolutionaries back in 2012-14. And look where that has got them….