Since the European Cup was rebranded as the Champions League, Europe’s premier domestic soccer competition has become a monster.
Global viewership figures for a Champions League final typically dwarf those of a Super Bowl and TV rights for the competition are sharply increasing in value: CBS and Univision are paying $150M per year for the U.S. rights for next season, which is triple the amount that Turner broadcasting shelled out for their current deal.
Monday’s Round of 16 draw was suitably blockbuster in nature. Each fixture appears more tantalizing than the last: Pep Guardiola will return to the Bernabéu to face Real Madrid; Liverpool will return to the site of their Champions League triumph last season to face a stern test in Atletico Madrid; Frank Lampard’s freewheeling Chelsea will face Bayern Munich for the first time since robbing them blind in the 2012 final.
Even the matchup between Atalanta and Valencia — the “smaller” sides of the knockout rounds — is being touted as a delicately poised classic in the making.
And as the competition continues to give its audiences appointment viewing, the clubs involved are getting richer and richer.
According to KPMG, 13 Champions League teams are now worth more than $1B. Real Madrid sit atop the most recent Forbes soccer club valuation with a value of $4.24B. Last month, the U.S. private equity firm Silver Lake bought a stake of just over 10% in City Football Group for $500M, which suggests that Manchester City’s value is now even greater than that of the Spanish giants.
These astronomical levels of money have, undoubtedly, had a resoundingly positive effect on the field. The standard of soccer is the best that has ever been played. Anywhere. Ever.
The Champions League might trail the World Cup for prestige, but the quality of the soccer — played by teams with gigantic budgets who are unencumbered by the nationality of their stars — is far superior.
And the competition is continually improving: the speed, technical passing and athleticism in this year’s competition are at a higher standard than we saw in the same tournament five years ago.
So, the Champions League is better, bigger, richer and more widely seen than ever before. And fans continue to be delighted by the increasingly sublime quality of UEFA’s showpiece tournament.
But at what cost does this fantastic soccer come?
Well, for starters, it is enabling the big teams to get bigger, while weakening the smaller teams.
The reason why the Champions League draw contains so many huge matchups is because, for the first time, all 16 representatives come from Europe’s top five leagues.
Ajax, who made it all the way to a dramatic semifinal last season, are absent. Benfica, Zenit St Petersburg, Olympiakos and Shakhtar Donetsk have not reached the knockout rounds.
The continent outside of the big five leagues has effectively been shut out of proceedings. And those who are not in the cabal have become feeder clubs to the powerful.
Ajax, for example, saw their triumphant team of last season have its spine removed by Barcelona and Juventus: Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt were sold to the combined tune of €150M.
This season, Erling Haaland and Takumi Minamino have turned heads for their European performances with RB Salzburg. But the conversation is not about how this brilliant brace of stars can form the core of a world-beating side. It’s about which megaclub will pay a high price to buy them. Minamino has already been poached by Liverpool and Haaland will surely leave Austria behind in due course.
Atalanta’s progression to the Champions League knockout stages might be evidence that a small side can still triumph. But they are only among the contenders due to the fact that UEFA was forced to give Italy four automatic places in the competition.
England, Spain and Germany have also been given four automatic spots. If they are not regularly placated with gifts like this, the threat of a breakaway tournament rears its ugly head.
Plans for a breakaway European Super League have been discussed since the 1990s. Whenever the continent's top clubs feel their collective pockets are not being suitably lined, rumors of an invite-only tournament for Europe’s biggest (read: “richest”) sides crops up.
Due to the constant threat of the big boys picking up their ball and leaving the park, UEFA have reportedly discussed changes to the Champions League from 2024, which would involve 24 of the 32 teams in the group stage retaining their places, regardless of domestic league performance.
The reported changes would also guarantee participants 14 games before the knockout stage, instead of the current six. That means more games for more players, who must also contend with an expanded format in the European Championships and World Cup. That, in turn, means less rest for top players — and more potential fatigue for fans who might grow wearisome of yet another elongated group stage.
The Champions League isn’t the only competition trying to expand its footprint for commercial reasons: the Club World Cup will expand from seven to 24 teams in 2021. The Spanish Super Cup — traditionally contested between the reigning league and cup champions before the season — will bizarrely feature four teams this season.
These expansions are not being done for sporting reasons. And neither are their far-flung geographical locations: The 2021 Club World Cup will be held in China, while this season’s Spanish and Italian Super Cups are taking place in Saudi Arabia. Reaching new fans is a boon, but the cost of global expansion is the legitimization of controversial regimes with poor human rights records.
(The same issue, of course, is present in Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain, whose Emirati owners stand accused of using their respective clubs as a means of soft power, and in order to whitewash the ills of their regimes.)
Beautiful soccer also comes with a more literal cost to fans: many are being priced out of the game. The working class supporters who traditionally packed European stadiums are being replaced by a more bourgeois crowd. Television rights packages, meanwhile, continue to soar in value. That cost is inevitably passed onto the consumer.
The aspiration of the biggest clubs to become global brands also has a detrimental effect on clubs outside of Europe. Fans in Africa, for example, are so enthralled with the Premier League that inferior local sides do not get nearly as much attention. In the U.S., meanwhile, there are countless fans who will wake up early to religiously watch the action from Europe, but who wouldn’t dream of attending an MLS game.
Evidently, soccer’s globalization is a double-edged sword. The standard of play on the field keeps hitting new heights, stadium facilities are ever-improving, and more people around the world are able to enjoy the game at the highest level.
But if the cabal of billion-dollar clubs keep growing at their current rates, they’ll soon be playing a completely different sport to the rest of the world.
More from Yahoo Sports: