Does the Europa League hurt Premier League clubs?

Europa League Trophy REUTERS Paul Vreeker
Photo by REUTERS/Paul Vreeker

Ah, the Europa League: bimonthly trips to the freezing climes of Eastern Europe, small midweek crowds at home, meager prize money, the chance to sell a third jersey… these are the trappings of UEFA’s second-class continental competition. Fans of English clubs love their European nights, but the endless rounds of the Europa League can take their toll on squads already stretched by two domestic cups. Is it worth all the trouble?

I decided to do a simple exercise to find out. I looked at Premier League standings going back to the 1999-2000 season, which was the first one in which the UEFA Cup absorbed the European Cup Winner’s Cup. For all the non-promoted teams, I took the difference between their final league position and their position in the previous year. Then I used a regression to see whether playing in the Champions League, UEFA Cup/Europa League, and/or Intertoto Cup was correlated with the difference in final league position.

The regression included binary variables for qualifying for the Champions League, UEFA Cup/Europa League, and Intertoto Cup. A team could have values of 1 for the UEFA Cup/Europa League and Intertoto Cup if they qualified for the former through the latter. For teams that dropped from the Champions League into the UEFA Cup/Europa League, I only gave a value of 1 for the Champions League. This was because continuing in the Champions League would have implied roughly the same commitment of time and effort. By contrast, the Intertoto Cup took place at a totally different time of year.

The constant in the regression was slightly greater than zero (0.45), implying that non-promoted teams’ league positions worsened slightly, on average, from year to year. This made sense. In the Premier League seasons since 1999-2000, all three promoted teams were never relegated immediately. As a result, some of the non-promoted teams in my sample, whose league position in their previous seasons was never worse than 17th, had to drop down the table.

There was virtually no effect associated with the change in league position from qualifying for the Champions League. In other words, the top teams in the Premier League pretty much stayed there from year to year. The effect associated with playing in the Intertoto Cup implied a small improvement in league position, but it was far from being statistically significant. The effect associated with playing in the UEFA Cup/Europa League was very significant: a drop of 1.9 league places, on average, with a 95% confidence interval stretching from 0.5 to 3.3 places.

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