This evening the Champions League will be back. At 20:45, the coins will have been thrown and both the game and its powerful marketing machine will be kicked off yet again across the continent, from Copenhagen to Istanbul, from San Sebastian to Piraeus. There is a lot that can be said against the Champions League rationale, its accessibility for clubs and its financial consequences on smaller leagues, but even the most nostalgic of observers will have to admit that from a purely marketing point of view, the Champions League is a formidable product.
The Champions League was the iPad of football: it was not really a new product, just a kind of extremely carefully packaged crossover of existing formats, and consumers had not really expressed any urgent desire for replacing the good old European Champion Clubs’ Cup. But it imposed a new ‘premium’ product category with an extraordinary well-defined and well-designed brand identity. And it did its job of eliminating UEFA’s potential competitor – the project of a break-away Super-League by a closed circle of European top clubs.
What the marketing experts at TEAM in Lucerne managed to create is an event that, like the Tour de France, is more important than the champions themselves, whatever their individual prestige. It did so by imposing the same audio-visual environment on all participants: an excellent new product name that was not yet connotated in any way and easily translatable into all European languages; an omnipresent logo with a high recognition value; the same pre-kick-off ceremony imported to club football from the national teams but with only one – transnational – neo-baroque anthem; the same exclusive event sponsors flagged at the same places in all stadia concerned; and most important of all, the rigorous simultaneity of all matches.
Given the huge difference across the continent in time perception, especially when it comes to the definition of ‘evening’ or ‘dinner time’, the fact that the Champions League has defined and imposed 8.45 pm as the definitive ‘prime time’ of the Europe of football is a most striking example for the power of markets in setting new standards. Imagine what the reaction would be if an MEP or European Commissioner suggested a ‘standard’ time slot for, say, evening TV news all over Europe… The Champions League has created a transnational time zone of its own, and everybody has accepted its dictatorship.
At the same time, the standardisation and multiplication of these European mid-week fixtures is also the greatest threat to the Champions League brand value. When Bayern Munich won their second European Cup in 1975, the final against Leeds United was only their seventh match in the tournament! At that time a European match on Wednesday evening was something absolutely exceptional; it belonged to what anthropologists would call ‘sacred time’, as opposed to the ‘profane time’ of ordinary life. In 2013-2014 the Champions League will cover 29 mid-week evenings, each finalist will have played thirteen matches. It’s a delicate balancing act to preserve the exceptional character of an event and prevent it from being ‘banalised’.
So far UEFA has managed, after messing around with the format several times, to avoid going too far in stretching the dough of its most lucrative pizza. They also resisted the temptation to ‘refresh’ or ‘update’ the audiovisual attributes of the Champions League brand identity, and they did well. The logo’s five-pointed stars around a ball suggest, by subliminally (and unashamedly) drawing on the EU’s flag, a ‘state-like’ credibility and uniqueness; the brand name has become a metaphor for top performance even in non-football related fields; the anthem is one of the best-known jingles across the entire continent; and the 8.45 kick-off time has been interiorised by all fans and followers (as well as those who have to live with them).
The Champions League has become the ‘European Ritual’ described ten years ago by Anthony King in his excellent book (Ashgate, 2003). A ritual imposed by one of the most successful continental undertakings of brand building ever. A ritual well interiorised by millions of Europeans, quite a few of whom, especially those living in Manchester, had no idea where the city of Plzeň was, let alone how its name was to be pronounced and spelt. Well, many of them will have a little geography lesson in their local pub tonight. At 8:45.
Albrecht Sonntag, Centre for European Integration, ESSCA School of Management, Angers.