Despite a difficult run-in, this summer’s Euro 2016 soccer tournament was seen as a bona fide triumph both on the pitch and off it for organiser Uefa. The European soccer confederation’s marketing director, Guy-Laurent Epstein, reflects on that competition, its next pan-continental edition in 2020, Uefa’s new president, the Champions League commercial model and the impact of centralised rights sales for national team qualifiers.
You are just a few months on from a successful Uefa Euro 2016 tournament. How do you feel it went, both for you personally and for the organisation as a whole?
For me personally, it was great because Euro 2016 was in my home country and the final was played in my home city of Paris. In addition, the tournament went very well because if you look at the situation that we [Uefa] were in when we began, there was flooding, the threat of terrorism, strikes – because, of course, us French have to go on strike – and with the issue after the first game in Marseilles [where a minority of the Russian team’s supporters attacked England fans at the end of their opening game]. Then you look how we finished the tournament – with a big party – it was ultimately very successful.
Finally, the commercial outcome was very positive. The ratings were very good; the atmosphere was very good on site, and the sponsors were all happy with the outcome of the event. So, yes, altogether, it was a very positive tournament.
What was the impact of the expansion to 24 teams for the first time in the tournament’s history?
When the expansion to 24 teams was launched there was some criticism that, firstly, the quality of the qualification process would be lowered. However, that proved to be wrong when Holland didn’t qualify and other big nations like Germany only qualified quite late in the process. So I think that it has proven to be rather competitive.
If you look at the final tournament itself, you just need to look at the teams that made the semi-finals like Wales – or Iceland in the quarter-finals. It is clear that they deserved to be there through merit.
The competition – in terms of sport – was very good and it added fans that were at the tournament for the first time, or hadn’t been participating in the finals for a long time, like the Northern Irish, the Welsh and the Icelandic fans. These new fans contributed greatly to the amazing atmosphere that was created.
What was the commercial value in having ‘Cinderella teams’ like Iceland and Wales be successful, as opposed to the traditional European powerhouses such as Spain, England or Italy?
It is an interesting question but because the competition is sold largely in advance there is no direct effect on their participation to the commercial revenue. However, I think Iceland – for example – was a massive Cinderella story and a lot of people, with no connection with Iceland, followed them for what they were achieving, only because of this Cinderella effect. This definitely contributed to the excellent audiences that we got. The same could be said about Wales’ involvement and, to a certain extent, to the Northern Irish because of the party atmosphere that they brought into the Euros.
So, yes, these teams added to the popularity of the tournament but I am not sure that they contributed to the financial or commercial success of Euro 2016. It is probably one of the elements that we would be using when we go back on to the market for future editions as the 24 teams final tournament is now a proven concept.
Likewise, I think that it is always good to have the host nation of any tournament going far into the competition because it contributes to the festival atmosphere in the country. It was therefore great that France stayed in to the end. It has been very positive for the spirit and the atmosphere in the country surrounding the tournament.
With the next tournament being held across the continent, what different approaches will you have to implement commercially?
Firstly, it will definitely be commercially attractive and the tournament will be hosted in 13 different countries that will be fully engaged. Traditionally, audiences in hosting countries are higher than in other markets, so we believe that there is an extra value because of the numerous markets which will now be open via the broadcasting rights.
Similarly, it will be very interesting for the sponsors as the tournament will be hosted in 13 markets that will all be very captive by nature. Also there is a wide spread of host countries for Euro 2020, going from major markets involved such as the UK, Germany, Spain, Italy, Denmark and Russia to growing markets such as Romania or Azerbaijan. This represents a significant commercial opportunity and there should be of huge interest for sponsors because they would be able to activate the rights in various captive markets.
So you won’t have any localised sponsors for the 2020 tournament and you would prefer to keep it centralised?
We are currently finalising our commercial concept and will probably consider looking into it for local opportunities in certain markets when it is worth it.
For Uefa Euro 2016, we had a local sponsorship programme including six local partners. In the new structure for Uefa Euro 2020, this would not be adequate anymore. We are designing a global programme but we would probably reserve some space in specific countries for partners in dedicated categories that make sense in the local market.
What do you personally see as the biggest potential challenge of hosting a multi-national Euros for the first time?
I think that it is a logistical challenge for us in terms of the organisation. In terms of the transmission of the images it is, of course, very difficult to do what we are traditionally doing because we will have to be more reliant on a new centralised distribution than on telecommunication distribution across many European countries for which it would be difficult to find a common standard that will allow us to go via cable or fiber.
Anyway, whilst we would have some logistical issues to solve, I think that it will be a very beneficial tournament for us.
You have already talked about ‘global’ activities a couple of times, though you are obviously a continental federation, while you have started working with partners like Chinese electronics manufacturer Hisense. How much is Uefa now pitching its events and properties as global propositions?
If you look at our sponsor line-up, there is already a global feel to them: Coca-Cola and McDonalds from the USA, Hyundai-Kia from South Korea and we now have Hisense, which is Chinese. So, we have a very large number of global partners as part of the tournament. The truth is that the tournament is not only covered in Europe, it has a truly global exposure.
The extension of the tournament led to 3pm CET kick-off times, which means that the games were transmitted at prime time in Asia. That helps to the globalisation of the European event so, of course, our footprint is primarily European but it has become a global proposition now.
In 2010, you moved the Uefa Champions League final from its traditional Wednesday slot to a Saturday night. What advantages have you seen from this?
The broadcast audience numbers have been very positive because it meant that we could reach the Americas – North and Latin – on a Saturday afternoon, which has been very encouraging.
For example, Brazil has one of the highest global viewership figures of the final also because there are always a lot of their players participating. The match is shown on one of the biggest networks in the country, TVGlobo, which means a large audience.
In terms of the festivity around the game, meaning the fans travelling and the atmosphere in the host city, it is far stronger because you have a real sense of a festival of football over a weekend, which is more difficult to achieve on a weekday.
The sponsorship is, of course, sold over the whole season but the final is the pinnacle of the season. Having the final over a weekend means that sponsors can offer their hospitality guests a really exciting experience that is not just for one day during the week but it can start on the Friday and end on the Sunday. This has contributed to the value of the competition.
It has also been rumoured that more Champions League matches will soon be played on Saturdays. How likely is this to happen? What would be the commercial advantages to this?
No, this is not going to happen in the next cycle. After that we don’t know, it depends. Now it is very clear that the format is very strong and we are selling commercial rights on that format: the game days will stay as they are today. We have no plans to play over the weekend.
How are new or recent partners like PepsiCo and Nissan bedding in?
Nissan is in its third year of sponsorship with us so we have become very familiar with them; they were very excited to join the Uefa Champions League exclusive family of partners. It is always good to have a balance between long-term partners – because we believe in long-term partnerships – and new partners that are challenging us with new ideas.
I think Nissan brought freshness to the table. They are based in the Asia so it contributes to further globalise the competition.
When we come to PepsiCo, as you might have seen that in Milan they are supporting the pre-match entertainment. Their promotional power is second to none with their major brands Walkers/Lays and Pepsi. They are supporting the promotion of the Champions League quite heavily across the world. That brings a lot of value to us.
At what point is Uefa in sponsorship sales for club competitions and are any new categories sought?
We are always open to any new venture. I think that there are interesting categories available. One that comes to mind is an airline. We don’t have an official airline, so it might be the case that in the future we would like to bring one in.
What will the process be for going to market for the Uefa Champions League rights sales for the next cycle?
We are finalising the commercial strategy as we speak. The idea is to finalise it together with the valued stakeholders – the clubs and the national Associations – by the end of this year. Then we will be ready to go on the market for media and sponsorship rights.
The next cycle starts in September 2018 but being in the market in January 2017 is probably where we want to be.
In the UK the Champions League is shown exclusively on pay-TV channel BT Sport, and coverage is now often found on pay-TV channels across the continent. What do you think this has done to the competition’s profile?
The market has dictated to us where to go. We are open and transparent when it comes to tendering the rights and we cannot dictate where the rights will end up. The Champions League is so important for the major pay-TV broadcasters in the UK, Sky and BT Sport, that we had no other choice than to go with one of them.
I must say that BT Sport’s production is very good. I think that their 360 digital delivery of a Champions League game is a great showcase of the direction that broadcasters are taking, being really digital and investing in digital/OTT platforms. We are doing a lot of work with them. Unfortunately, we lost ITV but there is not much that we could do; we cannot go against the market and we just have to live with it.
I think that the Champions League is a strong enough product to be able to move to a pay-TV platform. Furthermore, we have a lot of digital coverage and our commercial partners help us promote the competition throughout the year. So we can afford to be a full pay-TV in the UK or every other market because the brand is very strong after 25 years.
What’s the progress of centralised model of rights sales for European qualifiers?
We are in the second cycle of sales already. We have already sold the 2014/18 cycle, which is currently being played, and from my point of view it was very successful.
We went even further for the 2018/22 cycle, where we have reshuffled the calendar by creating a new competition called the Uefa Nations League. The countries will be split into four divisions subject to their strength. It is a very dynamic model with promotion and relegation and a final four being played every two years together with the qualification matches for the Euro and the Fifa World Cup. All of the associations have bought into it.
We started to sell this new package 18 months ago and it has been greatly received by the broadcasters and prospect sponsors.
What are your thoughts on the possible impact of changes to club competition qualifying regulations, which will maintain the participation of historically strong teams and leagues at the expense of those elsewhere?
I think you have seen what has been agreed on the sporting side, with four clubs from the four biggest associations continuing to qualify directly to the Champions League. The reality is that those markets are the most interesting commercially so the impact should be very positive on a business sense.
Obviously you are working in cycles that are years in advance. Nevertheless, what does the future hold for you?
Yes, I am really very ahead of myself!
We are currently selling rights until 2022 for the national team competitions. Very shortly, we will begin the sales of the club competitions up to 2021, so we have early a very clear idea what direction we are going in.