The Champions League: How Media Rights Deals Are Shaping the Global Soccer Landscape

The Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) Champions League Final is commonly one of the world’s most-viewed annual sporting events. And viewers aren’t the only ones rallying; sports are a huge draw for media buyers and the payoffs for rights holders are rising.

In 2018, nearly 106 million people tuned in when LaLiga’s Real Madrid won the championship over English Premier League’s (EPL) Liverpool—the largest audience in the last five finals. It was the Spanish giant’s third-straight UEFA Champions League (UCL) crown, fourth in five years, and the fifth consecutive UCL title for a LaLiga side. 

The 2019 and 2021 UCL editions were all-England Finals, resulting in lower viewership interest in other parts of the world. 

This year’s Champions League final—a re-match between Real Madrid and Liverpool—promises to draw an especially large audience. According to Nielsen Gracenote’s Euro Club Index, a ranking of European football clubs, 2022 marks the first time since 2011 that two of the three best teams in Europe will meet for a final since FC Barcelona beat out Manchester United for the cup in 2011. In fact, nine of the world’s 20 best players on Gracenote’s Global Player Index will take the field during the final this year.

The championship also underscores the recent dominance of EPL clubs in UCL finals. Since 2018, EPL clubs have taken five out of eight Champions League final places and won two of the last three competitions. 

This improvement in the fortunes of Premier League clubs internationally coincides with growth in the media rights income for the competition

Since the 2010-13 media rights package was sold for nearly $5 billion, the Premier League has increased the value of its domestic and international media rights by over 170% to $12.8 billion for the 2022-25 package.

By the 2018-19 season, EPL teams were dividing $7 billion more dollars in media rights fees than a decade earlier. 2019 also marks the first time a Premier League club, Liverpool, won the UCL title since 2012.

As the club fixture with the biggest global audience, the UCL final provides a solid return on investment for brands and rights holders. The increased international audience provides teams and their sponsors access to a broader set of viewers and fans who would otherwise watch them in their domestic leagues each week. 

And the increase in audience size is driving an increase in value for broadcasting rights. U.K. pay-TV broadcaster BT Sport, for example, agreed to a $1.5 billion deal to retain exclusive broadcast rights to the UCL, Europa League, and the new third-tier Europa Conference League from 2021 to 2024. 

This influx of dollars to EPL clubs has been the catalyst for a dramatic shift in the international soccer landscape. 

The only Premier League club in the top five of the Euro Club Index in May 2018 was Manchester City at number five. Today, EPL clubs claim three of the top five spots with Manchester City (2nd) and Chelsea (5th) joining top-ranked Liverpool. Just four years ago, LaLiga held the two top places in the Euro Club Index ranking, but today only Real Madrid remains in the top five.

Based on Gracenote’s average Euro Club Index of its top 18 clubs, the English Premier League and LaLiga have generally been the top two leagues in Europe since Gracenote launched the index in 2007. The only exception was in 2017-18 when Spanish clubs displayed superiority by winning all four European knockout ties against English clubs; the Premier League dropped to third.

Will this year’s final solidify the EPL as the UEFA’s dominant league? Gracenote estimates Liverpool has a 55% chance of winning thanks in large part to the Premier League’s success in bringing the highest quality players to the pitch—and media buyers to the table. 

And although Liverpool holds the advantage on the field heading into the championship, anything can happen. Real Madrid has the hottest player in the universe, Karim Benzema—ranked number one by Gracenote’s Global Player Index—and all it takes is a moment of brilliance to send a heavily-favored opponent home without the cup.