EHF Champions League Format: More tinkering needed. Why not a field of 64?

Group play for this year’s Champions League ended a couple of weeks ago. So what did we learn after 5 months, 10 rounds and 120 matches? In short, not a whole lot. In summary we learned the following:

– Chambery (France) proved that without Daniel Narcisse they are not a top 16 side.
– Kielce (Poland) and Constanta (Romania) are a little better than anticipated.
– KIF Kolding (Denmark) can play with the big dogs at home. (Draws vs. Kiel and Barcelona)

Wow, that’s a lot of games to find out so very little. But it’s nothing new for Group play in the Champions League as there have been very few surprises in recent years.

The EHF has been experimenting with the Champions League format in recent years. Previously group play was with 8 groups of 4 teams with 2 teams advancing from each group to the Round of 16. This year it was 4 groups of 6 teams with four teams advancing. This resulted in the 4 extra rounds, but the results were again all too predictable. The Round of 16 should prove a little more interesting, particularly with the #2 vs. #3 home and away matches. The #1 vs. #4 matchups are less likely to be interesting, although Kolding could surprise. More appealing will be the quarterfinals where Hamburg and Barcelona are likely to test the #1 seeds which are drawn against them. And the crème de la crème will be the Final Four where the top 4 teams will stage a final knock out tourney over 1 weekend in 1 location.

So what should be done to make the Champions League more interesting? Maybe it’s time to start thinking about scrapping Group play and home/away aggregate matches entirely. Why just have a Final Four? I say why not further copy the NCAA tournament and start with a field of 64?

For the Euros not familiar with America’s love affair with the NCAA basketball tournament a little education is in order. The NCAA basketball tournament is a single elimination knockout tournament played over 3 consecutive weekends by the basketball teams at American colleges and universities. 64 teams are selected through a combination of automatic and “at-large” bids and seeded 1-16 in four separate regions. The first weekend cuts the field from 64 to 16, the next weekend cuts it from 16 to 4 and the 3rd weekend is the Final Four. Unlike the more subdued crowds often associated with the NBA, collegiate crowds are more comparable to the atmosphere often seen at Handball matches in the Balkans. The first round matches, particularly the 16 vs. 1 seeds are often blowouts, but usually there are a few lower seeds that shock the favorites and become the darling of the tournament. Overall, the interest in terms of crowds and TV audience is massive with the month of March simply being renamed March Madness. Everywhere, even casual fans are filling out the 64 team brackets with their predictions of every game. Office betting pools abound with the secretary who knows nothing about basketball somehow always winning the contest.

So how would you adopt the NCAA format to European Handball? First off, you would make it “the end of season tournament” to be played after every national league’s season is over. The national leagues would wrap up on the 1st or 2nd weekend of May and then the tournament would take place the following 3 weekends. (As an example a would be tournament this year would start the 15th of May and conclude on the 29-30 May.) Participants would include every club champion in each European nation, perhaps with a reasonable cut off for 100% amateur leagues. (I don’t think we want to see England’s Great Dane vs. Ciudad Real.) Additionally, about 30 “at large” bids which would be awarded to the most deserving clubs in the top leagues. A fair distribution would probably have about 7 clubs from Germany and Spain, 3 or 4 from France, Denmark and Hungary and perhaps a few extra clubs from the Balkans, Poland and Romania. In terms of venues, neutral sites would be the most fair, but that would have to be weighed with locations that could assure good crowds. Top seeds could also be awarded with the right to host. The first weekend would have 8 sites, the 2nd weekend would have 4 sites and the last weekend would, of course, have 1 site just like Cologne this year. Also, depending on associated costs the sites could have staggered dates of competition for TV. (i.e. some sites could play Friday/Saturday or Sunday/Monday so that more games could be aired at different times.)

Of course, some of the same controversies that have plagued the NCAA tournament would be exacerbated in an International event. The NCAA tournament field is seeded by a committee and every year there are complaints that this team shouldn’t have made the field or this team didn’t deserve such an easy bracket. If Americans show strong allegiance to their college conferences it certainly can be said that Europeans would be even more parochial when it comes to defending their national leagues. The EHF would probably have to establish a ranking system that awarded national leagues a certain number of spots and then teams would have to be randomly assigned via some sort of drawing.

There surely would be other challenges to be resolved, but the plusses would outweigh the negatives. Here are some of the advantages to a 64 Team Tournament:

[u]It builds momentum[/u]: Playing the tournament over 3 consecutive weeks would avoid the current start and stop nature of the Champions League. Fans won’t have to wait for the next big game and would be less likely to lose interest.

[u]Rewards current season performance[/u]: One of the stranger aspects (at least to this American) of the current European Championship format is that entry into the competition is now based on last year’s performance. Why base a competition on last year’s results when due to transfers the teams could be totally different? Instead this format would reward teams that do well in the current season.

[u]Increased prestige[/u]: As the sole end of season tournament it will become the focus of clubs and fans. With the current format some clubs are conflicted with their national competitions. With nothing else going on this event will take prioirity

[u]Greater chance of upsets[/u]: As a couple of clubs proved during group play it’s possible for a lower rung team to beat (or at least scare) a good team once. It’s less likely though to happen over two games or over the course of a ten game round robin. The better team will still usually win, but it will only be a matter of time before some team from the Balkans celebrates while the big bad Bundesliga team goes home with their season being over. That’s drama and it will happen.

[u]Settle arguments[/u]: Another interesting aspect would be the opportunity to at least partially settle arguments about the relative strength of the different national leagues. This could be accomplished by placing the multiple German and Spanish sides in different sections of the bracket so that teams from the same nation can’t play each other until the quarter finals. Theoretically, you could have a final 8 with 7 Spanish sides. Unlikely perhaps, but should it happen I don’t think anybody would argue against any other league being better.

[u]Fewer games for top players[/u]: The fewer games would also have the added benefit of at least partially resolving the “too many games” issue impacting the world’s top players. Some of the weekends that would be freed up could also be used to encourage more cross nation club competition. You could even stage a couple Bundesliga – Liga Asobal showdown weekends that could be used to determine which league was entitled to more bids in the tourney. France and Denmark could also have a mini-competition to decide who’s third best.

[u]Financial considerations[/u]: Some might argue that this format would be less profitable as the clubs would have fewer games and fewer games at home. While there would be fewer games, the financial success of the NCAA tournament should give club executives at least reason to consider the possibility of an alternative. What kind of financial success are we talking about? Well, the current TV broadcasting contract alone was for $6 billion over 11 years. Yes that’s billion with a “b”. Contrast that to the average annual operating budget (perhaps $5 Million for the top clubs) in Europe. I have no idea what the current TV contract is for the Champions League, but I’m guessing it’s quite a bit South of 6 billion dollars. If you could replicate even a tenth of the revenue it would be an overwhelming financial success.

And if you could get even a hundredth of the interest the NCAA tournament has in the U.S. it would be a major promotional victory for the sport.

Wikipedia: NCAA Tournament:
Sports Business Journal (7 Dec 09): NCAA, TV talk about bigger men’s tourney: