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EPCR’s revamped 2020-21 plans offer glimpse of future commercial cycle format

Format changes implemented to the Heineken Champions Cup and Challenge Cup by European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) include elements that the organising body is looking to introduce during the next commercial rights cycle.

The EPCR board has unanimously approved the inclusion of 24 teams – instead of 20 – in the top-tier Champions Cup with eight representatives each from the English Premiership, Pro14 and France’s Top 14.

The number of Champions Cup match weekends has been trimmed from nine to eight, however, following calendar pressure created by the delaying of the final stages of the 2019-20 tournament to September and October in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The standard six rounds of pool-stage matches have been cut to four with the new season scheduled to begin on the weekend of December 11 to 13.

Along with a more compressed pool-stage format, aspects to be introduced in 2020-21 that EPCR had already been considering for the next commercial cycle from 2022-23 onwards include no teams from the same country playing each other in the pool stage and home-and-away quarter-finals.

EPCR chief executive Vincent Gaillard told SportBusiness that the extended knock-out stage could be expanded further to include home-and-away semi-finals in the next commercial cycle.

He said: “It’s not just adapting and reacting to a crisis – it’s testing new things and seeing how they go, and possibly deciding to implement them for the future.”

The 2020-21 Challenge Cup will comprise 14 clubs, down from 20, with six from the Top 14, four from the Premiership and four from the Pro14. All teams will be placed in a single pool with four rounds of matches and no same-country fixtures, before an expanded knockout phase involving a round of 16.

The scrapping of teams from the same country playing each other in the pool stage comes after feedback from rights-holding broadcasters and clubs. During the 2018-19 season, the Exeter Chiefs played Gloucester Rugby three times in the space of 21 days, leading to slow ticket sales and a degree of repetition for pay-television broadcaster BT Sport, the UK rights-holder to EPCR competitions and the Premiership.

EPCR was already well down the road in considering future format changes before the disruption caused by Covid-19 and more permanent alterations could be brought in a year before the new commercial cycle starts, according to Gaillard.

“It’s too early to say where we will end up two years from now,” he noted. “It is also possible that we will decide to implement those new formats one season earlier (from 2021-22 onwards).

“If we like what we’ve done, if the tests work and all our broadcasters are happy then we could implement them before.”

The 2020-21 tournament finals will now take place in Marseille after Covid-19 forced EPCR to abandon plans to stage this season’s matches in the French city. As a knock-on effect, London’s Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, is now lined up to stage the 2022 edition.

(A video explanation of the new Champions Cup format for the 2020-21 season can be found here).

Going to market, Club World Cup plans

Once the permanent format for the future Champions Cup and Challenge Cup tournaments is decided upon, including the introduction of a Club World Cup into the next four-year cycle, the EPCR will begin its new rights sales process.

Gaillard said: “Notionally, going to market for this future cycle will happen – depending on the country – between late autumn of 2020 and Q1 of 2021.”

The EPCR’s main broadcast deals, including those in the UK (with BT Sport and Channel 4), France (beIN Sports and France Télévisions) and Ireland (Virgin Media Television), all run until the end of the 2021-22 campaign, as does an international rights sales contract with the RDA agency.

A title sponsorship deal with Dutch brewery Heineken also runs until 2022.

EPCR derives around 85 per cent of its revenues from broadcast rights fees with the remaining 15 per cent stemming from sponsorship monies and ticketing. The Lausanne-based body had been in the market for a title sponsor for the Challenge Cup but has shelved all attempts to do so in the last six months given the market downturn.

News first emerged in April that EPCR had held talks over a Club World Cup and the tournament organiser plans “more than ever” for the event to be a major part of the next cycle.

The “best case scenario” would be for the first edition to be held in 2022, according to Gaillard.

He said that EPCR is “absolutely committed to wanting to do it” and has “a couple” of format scenarios in mind that he is looking to develop with partners in the southern hemisphere.

Gaillard explained: “We still have a bit of work to do in terms of developing the concept and fully engaging with whatever partners in the southern hemisphere. It’s still a bit uncertain at the moment in terms of Sanzaar’s future role. We’re going through the motions of figuring that out.”

Any Club World Cup would remain “exclusive” by only happening once every four years in order to avoid devaluing the Champions Cup, he said.

A clause in the EPRC participation contracts with clubs already mandates the Champions Cup winner to be available for one additional match per year, a scenario that had led the EPCR to look at a possible ‘Clash of the Hemispheres’ match.

EPCR clarified its position on the creation of a Club World Cup after French Rugby Federation (FFR) president Bernard Laporte said that he had discussed the idea of an annual tournament and claimed that the Champions Cup “doesn’t generate enough income”.

Broadcaster compensation talks ‘not legalistic’

The plans to complete the 2019-20 European competitions, albeit four months later than scheduled, have left EPCR confident that the season will be finished “without any loss of content or commercial value”.

However, it has been recognised that the schedule disruption has affected broadcasters and sponsors, and negotiations over necessary compensation continue.

Gaillard outlined: “First and foremost, before we talked about compensation, it was about making sure we were finding ways to keep providing value to them and our sponsors while there was no live rugby. That led to a lot of great initiatives going on with Heineken and our broadcast partners (through archive footage).

“The discussions on compensation are taking place. As they should be. They are healthy because they are legitimate. The bottom line is that all of them have been impacted and we have been as well.

“It’s just a question of sitting down as good partners. We’re privileged that we have a 25-year relationship with Heineken that helps these discussions, along with long-standing relationships with BT [Sport] and beIN [Sports] amongst others.

“This makes the discussions relatively easy, or in other words, not legalistic.”