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Uefa Nations League | Early matches win over (most of) the doubters

Few human endeavours, in any field, have required as much explanation as the Uefa Nations League. At the time of writing, a search for ‘Uefa Nations League + format’ will bring up 565,000 entries on Google. YouTube houses numerous ‘Nations League explained’ videos. And when Uefa requires nearly 1,800 words on its website (plus seven graphics) to present its latest creation to the world, you know you have to pay attention or you’ll miss something.

Yet when the whistle blew to get the first matches under way on September 6, it all seemed very simple: what had once been international friendly matches were now competitive matches.

Confusion over the format and cynicism over Uefa’s motives – notably in British and German media – generally gave way to enthusiasm. There is now more at stake, including a new trophy for the winners and another route into Euro 2020. Opponents are evenly matched.

Stronger teams are being selected and fewer substitutions made. It’s better football. Richer entertainment for those in the stadiums or in front of their screens.

Not everybody was won over. After the October 7 Premier League match with Manchester City, Liverpool coach Jürgen Klopp bemoaned losing his players to “the Nations Cup”, a competition he described as “the most senseless in the world of football”. And it remains to be seen whether Uefa’s marketing slogan ‘Every Game Counts’ is borne out by games at the end of the group stages, when winners and losers are already decided.

But speaking exclusively to SportBusiness Review ahead of this week’s group stage matchday three, Guy-Laurent Epstein, marketing director at Uefa Events, explains why European football’s governing body is happy with the competition so far.

“Uefa has been working on this for several years. We have been selling a vision to broadcasters of how it will be. What we saw exceeded my expectations,” he says.

“On air, it worked well as a product – the music, the branding, the atmosphere. In the big markets, the TV ratings were far closer to qualifier match ratings than for friendlies. Some of the press coverage was negative before the competition
began, but the press reaction to the first matchdays was extremely positive. The feedback from fans has been good too. People get it. The stadiums, including in the lower-tier leagues, were well-attended, which is a clear statement.”

Selected TV ratings, when measured against qualifier matches for the 2018 Fifa World Cup, confirm this. Germany’s goalless draw with France was watched on public-service broadcaster ZDF by 11.1 million viewers, a 39.2-per-cent share. This was a bigger audience than for any of the qualifiers for the World Cup on German television. In France, commercial broadcaster TFI drew 7.1 million viewers, a 32.4-per-cent share, for the same match. This figure was 1.6 points up on the average domestic match audience of the World Cup qualifiers.

On matchday two, Italy’s public-service broadcaster Rai drew 7.6 million – a 32.6-per-cent share – on Rai 1 for the country’s 1-0 defeat to Portugal in Lisbon, on a par with the channel’s average live audience for the qualifiers. Spain’s unexpected 6-0 drubbing of World Cup finalists Croatia did even better. The 5.2 million live audience on public-service broadcaster TVE’s flagship La 1 channel was 9.3 per cent higher than its average audience for the qualifiers.

Negotiations

The commercial model for the Nations League was the European Qualifiers, Uefa’s overhaul of European qualifier matches for the European Championship and the Fifa World Cup, which got under way in 2014. That also required the centralisation of commercial rights under Uefa’s control, and was the first step in the governing body’s attempts to improve the standing of national-team football in relation to club football and help close the financial gap which had opened between the two.

These objectives are shared by Uefa’s 55 member federations. But that doesn’t mean that the process has been easy. For some of the smaller nations, the promise of more money from the European Qualifiers was enough to get them to sign up. But many of the bigger associations had spent years building up in-house marketing teams to handle the sale of commercial rights. Centralisation meant them giving up power and influence. It meant egos having to be put to one side. Discussions with the English and German associations were among the most fraught, especially regarding the pooling of sponsorship inventory.

But Uefa delivered on its promises, and the successful delivery of the European Qualifiers – including the bigger payments to federations – made the conversations around the Nations League much easier.

“We created trust with our member federations through the implementation of the European qualifiers’ centralisation,” Epstein says. “Uefa brought value to European football, increasing revenues for all national associations. Some associations were reluctant to give up control at the beginning, which is natural. But we proved, by working together, that it was the right thing to do. This time around we were able to talk to them as real partners, building something together.”

Making a like-for-like comparison of the commercial value of the Nations League with that of friendly matches is complicated by the fact that some broadcasters have acquired the rights to Euro 2020, the European Qualifiers and the Nations League, and Uefa does not publish a breakdown on the fees. It is thought that in some cases, the broadcasters have not specified a breakdown.

When Uefa began talking to federations in 2010 about the centralisation of the qualifiers, it estimated that the value of the media rights sold by the individual federations was about €680m ($780m) over a four-year cycle. For its first cycle of European Qualifiers, from 2014-15 to 2017-18, Uefa brought in about €1bn, an increase of almost 50 per cent.

In that same cycle, the individually-sold rights to friendlies were worth about €350m. So between Uefa-sold rights and individually-sold rights, the federations earned about €1.35bn over the four years. For the 2018-19 to 2021-22 cycle, Uefa is set to earn over €2bn for national-team media rights, including the European Qualifiers, the Nations League and some centrally-sold friendly matches.

TV and sponsorship

Convincing broadcasters and sponsors to invest in the rights to the competition – as well as getting fans through the turnstiles – was obviously the key to the success of both projects. The creation of the ‘Week of Football’ meant that broadcasters could acquire rights to top-level football from Thursday to Tuesday at a time when no domestic league games were being played. Inevitably, there has been strong competition between the major free-to-air broadcasters across Europe for the games of the domestic national team. But Uefa was also able to bring pay-television operators properly into the mix for the first time. The appetite for the Nations League among pay-television platforms is similar.

“The European Qualifiers brought pay-TV to national team football,” Epstein says. “There were 10 European Qualifiers matchdays over a two-year cycle. Now, with the inclusion of the Nations League, there are 20. This gives even more regular high-level football, which pay-TV can offer its subscribers when there is no other football on.”

The UK market provided a good example of the growing interest. For the first two editions of the Nations League, in 2018-19 and 2020-21, pay-television operator Sky agreed to pay just under £100m (€114m/$131m) for all rights, according to SportBusiness Media, the sister publication of SportBusiness Review. This was almost double the £50m commercial broadcaster ITV paid for rights to England friendly matches in a deal with the Football Association between 2014-15 and 2017-18.

For Nations League sponsorship rights, the approach has been slightly different to that of the European Qualifiers. For the earlier competition, federations were given three options for their perimeter board space: give it all up to Uefa, give up half of the space, or give Uefa nothing at all. For the Nations League, Uefa only sells the inventory for the four matches which make up the finals. For all others, federations sell the inventory to their home matches.

Bundling the Nations League finals with the Euros – and some of the European Qualifiers signage – enables Uefa to offer brands the chance to associate with national-team competitions – and build activation programmes – across a four-year period, which includes three ‘peaks’ around finals, two for the Nations League (2019, 2021) and one for Euro 2020.

The top packages also include the Women’s European Championship, the U21 European Championship and the Uefa Futsal Championship. These packages have substantial value. The October 2017 deal struck by online travel company Booking.com, covering all of Uefa’s national-team competitions from 2018-19 to 2021-22, for example, is thought to be worth close to €60m. Further deals are likely to be announced in the coming weeks.

Club coaches, like Klopp, represent one constituency that the Nations League will never win over. But that doesn’t really change anything. Club coaches that have been happy to send their players off to play in international friendly matches don’t spring readily to mind.

For now, Uefa will probably settle for having federations, fans, broadcasters and sponsors – and even some of the more jaundiced newspaper reporters – on board.

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