Just kidding

This year saw the first ever Champions League final held on a Saturday. Alan Tomlinson considers the real reasons for a switch from mid-week

It was all over by the Monday. At 1pm the desks were down in Madrid’s Westin Palace Hotel, the signs to the UEFA operations room were all gone, only the occasional Ford – proudly boasting its longevity as a UEFA Champions League sponsor – pulled up outside the hotel, and the fleet of luxury VIP coaches had disappeared. The noticeboards in the hotel lobbies announced business as usual for the dealmakers of the corporate world, or the richer end of the conference business.

The Champions League final has been held 54 times before, without interruption, before Madrid 2010. And always on a mid-week evening. So why the switch? UEFA in­siders say that president Michel Platini looked around Istanbul during the Liverpool v AC Milan final in 2005 and asked: “Where are all the children?” He was told that a Wednesday night in Istanbul wasn’t the most suitable for a schoolkids’ excursion and this got him thinking. He went on to speculate that the final should be on a Saturday night. Midweek, he said, kids have to get up for school the next day, and with matches in the likes of Istanbul and Moscow, how could Western European kids be ready for school with matches stretching way beyond midnight? So late nights at the weekend could expand the young audience for the annual climax of the European game.

In the spacious corridors of the luxurious Westin Palace on the afternoon of the the game, Platini, heading for the elevator, was asked why the switch to the Saturday night. He was looking a little ruffled, certainly tired for the early afternoon. Maybe the glad-handing that he knew he was heading for from the lobby groupies of UEFA and its partners was getting to him. But he mentioned first that the weekend timing would make it easier for many to watch the game, in different places all around the world. “And the children,” he was asked. “Ah yes, the children,” he confirmed, a little sheepishly. His mind was clearly geared more to the global media market, and he cited the 3pm audience in the Americas, the early-morning viewers in China. These global markets sounded like the real thinking behind the switch. When I visited Mastercard HQ in Purchase, New York, and asked how the continuing investment in the event could be justified in the economic downturn, the senior executive smilingly slipped a map of the global viewing figures across the table.

Platini’s early rationale wasn’t wholly hot air. The Santiago Bernabéu was host to 2,500 children for the final, with allocations of 2,000 tickets to each finalist, and 1,000 distributed in open draw, for children and an accompanying parent. A children’s football event had also been organised before the final, and another 500 tickets – complimentary – went to them. This was no mean gesture from UEFA for a seat at the most expensive soccer game in the tournament’s history, with tickets ranging from €300 (£249) down to €90 for the general public.

The children were not obviously visible either in the stadium or over the weekend. Perhaps they were cooped up in their hotel rooms with their Playstations. The theory behind the focus on the kids included possible extended family breaks either side of a weekend fixture. Not many youngsters were among the groups of drinking and singing Bayern and Inter fans though. I couldn’t see any getting on and off the sponsors’ coaches to the Friday night Final Celebration Party. No grateful infant faces could be seen among the Unicredit champagne reception in the courtyard of the Museo Thyssen. Ford sent a cohort of Essex lads who ridiculed the idea of bringing the kids – or a wife or girlfriend. “Only the president’s brought his wife,” one of them laughed. Outside the Bernabéu, these Ford men escaped the confines of the corporate hospitality of the Champions Village and knocked back bucket-sized beers and vodkas on the street, inquiring into the marital status of any female holding a sponsor guidepole.

So, when the squares were cleared up on the Sunday morning and the bulk of the football crowd was hungover and heading home, what had changed? Madrid is an all-night city. Young people in the Heineken delegation of 1,200 employees and guests had been promised a night-club crawl after the Champions Village tents were closed up. Perhaps they stayed on for a third night, for rehabilitation. In the Royal Botanical Garden on the Sunday there were some visitors who were clearly not in that traditional fan category. A mother and daughter from Munich stopped to rest in the shade, at 5pm, and said that the result didn’t matter so much, at least they’d now seen Madrid. In Chamartín, at the end of Metro Line 1, by Sunday afternoon the Champions League final was old news. The local tapas and sports bar showed the bullfighting on one screen and the second division play-off second leg between Real Betis and Real Sociedad on another.

The total audience reach of the 2009 final was estimated at 206 million when Barcelona defeated Manchester United in the last mid-weeker. The old European Cup had now become a bigger live one-off media event than the Super Bowl. Media insiders were unanimous that the switch to a Saturday night would increase that audience still more. In 2006-07 the accumulated Asian audience for the season’s fixtures already exceeded Europe’s. According to UEFA, 1.15 billion Asian viewers followed that season’s games, against 1.05bn Europeans. With the 2010 Saturday final available to early risers in Asia, and in a convenient Saturday slot in the Americas, Saturday night fever in Madrid looked like heaven to the broadcasters and the sponsors. It didn’t really matter to the global audience whether the kids were in town or not.

From WSC 281 July 2010