I often tell people one of the benefits of being a Rangers fan is that you get two occasions every week to be happy: Rangers winning and Celtic losing.  Celtic’s defeat to Sporting Braga in the first round of the Champions League qualifier gave Rangers fans even further satisfaction – not only did Celtic lose but Rangers stand to gain over two million pounds because of the hoops’ failure to qualify for the CL group stages.

On the surface, this is a great thing for Rangers fans (and Celtic fans when the opposite happens), but the reason behind it is bad for European club football.

The basis for the Rangers windfall is the ‘market pool’ concept which is used by UEFA to disburse Champions League television money.  Per UEFA’s glossy brochure extolling the size of the trough: “…in addition to these sums, the clubs receive a share of revenue fixed in accordance with the value of the TV market of the country they represent. If an association has more than one representative, the amount received by each club depends on its position in the national championship in the previous season and the number of matches played in the current season’s Champions League.”

I have a few problems with this.

First, what does the size of the TV market have to do with anything?  Sure, you can argue that there are more Italians than Danes therefore they drive the sponsorship value up, but what about all the Americans and Brazilians and Chinese watching?  How is that factored in?  And even if there are 10 times as many Italians as Danes, maybe it’s the Danes who are playing the most attractive football.  Hell, maybe it’s Danes playing for Italian teams that make it attractive for Italians to watch.

Also, this reinforces another bias – teams from big countries already have an advantage as their larger TV market means they sign bigger TV deals (Sky’s English deal pays more per club than the equivalent Scottish deal pays the whole league – GBP 22m per annum in England vs. 1.8m in Scotland).

And why should it be divided up according to the number of entrants from that country?  Surely each participating team is worth as much as the next?  I suppose the logic could be, taking Scotland as an example, half the fans would watch Celtic and half would watch Rangers.   But if Rangers don’t qualify, most Rangers fans won’t watch Celtic (personally, I’ll only watch the highlights and even then only when I know they’ve lost) so I don’t see how that argument flies.  Most fans will only watch their own team, or at best, one other game – it’s impossible to do otherwise as games are played simultaneously anyway.

Let’s illustrate what this means in practice – with some big numbers.

For the 2008-09 season, total revenue distributed to Champions League participants (group stages and beyond) was EUR 583m.  *Almost half of this* – EUR 274m – was distributed according to the “TV market” formula (to put that figure into perspective, the 2007 turnover of the entire SPL was approx EUR 211m).  Looking at how this revenue is shared out:
•       Reversing what’s happening this season, Rangers lost out to Kaunas in an early qualifier, so Celtic were Scotland’s sole entrant and added EUR6.1m to the biscuit tin
•       England had four entrants who shared EUR55m between them
•       Italy did even better, sharing almost EUR57m among their four qualifiers
•       Ukraine received 1m to share between two entrants.

Does this seem sensible?

Incidentally, one of the side-effects of this is to skew the overall distribution of prize money – so Man United (runners-up) earned EUR 38m, which was over 20% more than Barcelona (winners), while Bayern Munich (last 16) also earned more than Barca.  This would be even more skewed if the winner was from a small country – had Celtic beaten Man U in the final, their total take would have been around EUR 27-28m, maximum; or only EUR24-25 had Rangers also qualified.  Of course, a team from a small country winning might be exactly what these rules are designed to prevent, no?

The obvious suggestion is to say it should be a meritocracy, and the loot should be divvied up according to performance – which is what happens to the other half of the Champions League cash.  However this would also lead to a self-reinforcing cycle, where successful teams would be paid more and would thus be able to outbid lesser teams for top talent, helping them win again – probably not something that strengthens the game overall, but it would at least be better than the status quo.

Now, I hesitate to use FIFA as a role model for anything, but one thing they have done over the past 35 years – often for the wrong reasons – is distribute money far and wide to improve grassroots football.  Revenues from the World Cup – the only one of their tournaments which is profitable – are dispersed across all the nations of the “FIFA Family” to support development of the global game.  $700m has been distributed for this purpose in the last four years.  While this is a good thing, in practice it was instituted to help Joao Havelange get elected FIFA president (effectively buying the votes of Third World countries) and now it helps Sepp Blatter stay in power.  So, the downside of a loosely-accountable organisation like FIFA or UEFA distributing this cash is that it can be used for political ends.

However, current UEFA leader Michel Platini claims to have the good of the game at heart – and he has taken some actions to back up his words (for example, expanding the number of leagues with guaranteed CL group stage qualification from 9 to 12) – so why not increase the “solidarity payments” that are made to each nation’s football association to assist with their country’s development of the game?  In the UK, the Football Trust and its successors have been used to disburse revenue across British football – something similar could be done at the pan-European level, or UEFA funds could be delivered to national bodies, who would be vetted and audited to ensure the money is going where it is supposed to.

After all, it’s the diversity of the tournament that makes it attractive to watch.  And if it ends up with only a small number of teams with the resources to win it, well, it’ll start to look like another uncompetitive league that we all know and love, won’t it?  And surely no-one can want that.