Associated Press
Tuesday August 23rd, 2016

GENEVA (AP) — The richest clubs and biggest leagues in Europe are set to tighten their grip on the Champions League's future format and prize money this week.

A deal being prepared by UEFA should end threats by some elite clubs to break away and form a closed European Super League before 2021.

However, it could ensure that more guaranteed places in the 32-team group stage and bigger shares of billion-dollar prize money each season will go to teams like Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus from the four highest-ranked national leagues.

In the hours before the group-stage draw on Thursday, a series of meetings with clubs and UEFA executive committee members in Monaco is expected to agree changes to entry slots for the 2018-2021 seasons.

UEFA and the influential European Club Association declined to comment on reports that the top leagues—in Spain, Germany, England and Italy—will each get four direct entries into the groups.

In a statement to The Associated Press, UEFA said only that it "expects to announce the evolution" of the Champions League at a news conference on Friday.

Italian clubs are looking to be the big winner. Serie A would offer four direct entries to the group stage, compared to two in the current three-season commercial cycle which expires in 2018.

Spain, England and Germany would also benefit by ending the risk of its fourth-placed club losing in the playoff round each August. Advancing through the playoffs is worth tens of millions of euros (dollars) as UEFA will share 1.3 billion euros ($1.47 billion) among the 32 group-stage clubs this season.

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Italy has a dire recent record in playoffs. Serie A sends its third-placed team to the final qualifying stage and only AC Milan in 2014 has advanced in the past six seasons.

Changing the Champions League format is possible only every three years. It must be agreed before UEFA's retained marketing agency can sell Champions League and Europa League rights to broadcasters and sponsors for the next cycle.

The debate this year has been intense with clubs seeming to take advantage of a UEFA leadership gap since outgoing president Michel Platini was suspended by FIFA last year.

It should be resolved ahead of a Champions League draw missing recent winners Manchester United, Chelsea, AC Milan and Inter Milan. They all failed to qualify, but would expect to join an American-style closed European league where the likes of surprise English champion Leicester would not automatically appeal to most broadcasters.

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Options favorable to the most influential clubs included more entries for the top leagues, bigger shares of the prize fund, protected places for storied clubs with a global fan base, and playing matches on Saturdays rather than midweek to appeal to Asian and American audiences. Outside Europe, viewers are judged to want more games between high-profile teams.

The deal now reportedly on UEFA's table gives clubs some concessions, while keeping Platini's vision for the world's most prestigious club competition.

Platini, who played in the 1980s-era European Cup when only national champions were in a pure knockout bracket, had worked to protect entries for more teams from middle-ranking countries.

This season, Bruges, Basel and Besiktas—title winners in Belgium, Switzerland and Turkey—are among 22 teams with direct group-stage entry. It is unclear how those places could be squeezed if the big-four leagues get 16 guaranteed slots instead of 11 at present.

Basel president Bernhard Heusler declined to comment to The AP ahead of attending Thursday's meeting of the UEFA club competitions committee.

UEFA acknowledged the next format is being agreed sooner than expected. A deadline of December's meeting of the UEFA executive committee was set after tense meetings in Milan on May 28, ahead of the Champions League final.

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The new timetable should see the tournament's immediate future settled before the UEFA presidential vote on Sept. 14 to replace Platini.

The election front-runner, Aleksander Ceferin of Slovenia, has won public support from countries like Denmark and Sweden, whose title-holders regularly qualify for Champions League groups but are not seen as commercially attractive.

Some club leaders, including Juventus president Andrea Agnelli, say the Champions League is undervalued despite UEFA raising 2.24 billion euros ($2.5 billion) in annual commercial revenue for the Champions League and Europa League combined in the 2015-2018 cycle.

That gives a 12 million euro ($13.6 million) basic fee to each team in the Champions League groups. The top earner can get around 100 million euros ($113 million) from UEFA when results bonuses and TV rights shares are added.

Still, that is barely more than the English Premier League pays its last-place team from TV money, and the top European clubs want a bigger share of Champions League money from the next deal.

That deal could be struck, fittingly, on Thursday in a five-star hotel in Monte Carlo.

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