Wednesday night’s UEFA Cup final saw Sevilla trounce this year’s comeback kings, Middlesbrough. Last year’s final saw two other unfancied teams, CSKA Moscow and Sporting Lisbon reach the final. While the success of newcomers is always welcome, the UEFA Cup has very much become a second rate competition; few would rate any of these teams among Europe’s elite. Indeed until recently many of the teams competing in the tournament could only dream of doing so.
The demise of the competition can be traced back to the disbanding of the Cup Winners’ Cup and the expansion of the Champions League. What was once a thrilling competition in the 80s has now lost its shine. Rudi Assauer, commercial manager of Schalke 04, refected this in April when he said that finishing third in the Bundesliga and qualifying for the Champions League was more important than winning the UEFA Cup (Schalke were still in it at that stage) as the CL is much more lucrative.
The introduction of group stages to the UEFA Cup has done little to help viewing figures. The problem still lies in the perceived quality of the teams taking part. So apart from scrapping the competition what other options are there to make the UEFA Cup more popular?
One option would be to reduce the number of teams taking part in the Champions League, so that say only first and second from the major leagues, and first placed teams from the so-called minor leagues could qualify. Teams from the major leagues finishing third and say third in the minor leagues would then qualify for the UEFA Cup.
This would help both competitions and narrow the popularity and financial gap between them. It would increase competition by reducing the number of uncompetitive matches which would drive audience appeal and therefore sponsorship appeal. As an extra carrot, the winner of the UEFA Cup could be guaranteed a place in the following year’s Champions League. This already happens in European basketball’s equivalent of the UEFA Cup, the ULEB Cup, where the winner gets direct entry into the following season’s Champions League equivalent, the Euroleague.