LFP pulls plug on Coupe de la Ligue given waning TV interest

Strasbourg celebrate following the 2019 French League Cup final. (Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)

The board of the French Football League (LFP) has opted to suspend future editions of the Coupe de la Ligue, the French league cup competition, given waning interest among broadcasters for the property.

The LFP board met today (Wednesday) and it was expected that another effort would be made to secure broadcasters for the competition from 2020-21 onwards.

However, the LFP has dramatically announced the decision to suspend the organisation of the tournament after the end of this season.

The league said: “Depending on market conditions, the LFP reserves the right to relaunch this competition at a later date.

“This decision will enable the competition calendar to be lightened, give players more time to recuperate and offer an additional place in Europe via the Ligue 1 standings at the end of the 2020-2021 season.”

It had been expected that the LFP would issue a new invitation to tender for the broadcast rights to the Coupe de la Ligue competition from 2020-21 to 2023-24 in a last attempt to salvage the tournament’s future.

Domestic broadcast rights to the knockout clubs competition are currently shared by pay-TV broadcaster Canal Plus and public broadcaster France Télévisions in four-year deals worth €23.9m ($26.2m) per year and that expire at the end of this season. Canal Plus has rights to the whole tournament, leaving France Télévisions with non-exclusive rights to the top match from each round.

There was a modest response from Canal Plus and France Télévisions to the tender issued 10 months ago, particularly given the public broadcaster’s bid to sell on rights to that competition and the Coupe de France in a cost-cutting exercise. No other broadcaster expressed serious interest in the rights.

The fact that future competition winners will no longer qualify for the Uefa Europa League (from 2021-22), but a playoff for the group stages of Uefa’s new third-tier competition, has been another blow to France’s league cup competition as it battled for its place in a busy football calendar.

The French television audience for the Coupe de la Ligue final has fallen steadily in recent years. The low-profile 2018-19 final between Strasbourg and Guingamp was watched by an average of just 2.3m viewers (a 13.2-per-cent share) on the France 2 channel.

The suspension of the tournament comes despite the LFP having signed up BKT, the Indian tyre manufacturer, as the title sponsor until 2024 in a deal announced 12 months ago and worth around €3m per year.

Club presidents had also been looking at a radical overhaul of the competition format to drive new interest. Two new formats were under consideration, according to L’Equipe.

The first would have been to play a curtailed eight-team competition over 10 days during the period currently reserved for French football’s winter break. It had been proposed that the top eight teams from the previous Ligue 1 season would take part in a knockout format but broadcast and sponsorship revenues would be split among all league clubs regardless of participation.

This proposal, which would have excluded over three quarters of French professional sides, was always likely to prove to be unpopular with the UNFP, the French players’ union, which previously protested against any shortening of the winter break.

The second proposal was to have clubs in four regional groups – North, South, East and West – battling it out to reach the quarter-finals. However, doubts are said to have been raised by club presidents about those teams in the North group being disadvantaged by having to face the big-spending Paris Saint-Germain. There has also been scepticism about the appetite among broadcasters and fans for regional games in which first-choice players are likely to be rested.

Four years ago, the LFP succeeded in more than doubling the domestic broadcast rights income from the Coupe de la Ligue by rewarding more exclusivity to pay-TV’s Canal Plus. France Télévisions had been paying just €10.5m per season for the exclusive rights from 2012-13 to 2015-16.

Upon going to market 10 months ago, the LFP issued the Coupe de la Ligue tender alongside the rights to the second-tier Ligue 2. The sales process for the latter was a success as €64m per season, nearly triple the previous outlay, was raised in deals with Mediapro, the agency and production group that had already secured Ligue 1 rights, and subscription broadcaster BeIN Sports.

The LFP has previously expressed its doubts about the level of competition among broadcasters for the Coupe de la Ligue rights given it allows bidding alliances between free-to-air and pay-TV broadcasters.