Nostalgia: Champions League Style

By David Shams

The first time I saw a Champions League Final was in 1995. To be honest, I had no idea what I was watching, but at the end I knew I wanted more.

Ajax’s young guns, Frank and Ronald De Boer, Nwankwo Kanu, Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf, Edwin van der Saar, well basically their entire starting lineup, faced off against AC Milan, a squad that could only be described as the old guard, remnants left over from one of the more dominate footballing sides of the late 80’s and early 90’s.

I didn’t know it at the time, but they had met in the group stages with Ajax taking both matches 2-0. But, it just like a changing of the guards. Even though we didn’t get access to much club soccer on television, we did get a handful of soccer magazines. And from those sources my brother and I knew that AC Milan was powerhouse, they were the pinnacle, they were the Yankees.

It was the 85th minute before 19-year-old substitute Patrick Kluivert’s first touch from a Frank Rijkaard pass took him 1v1 with the goalkeeper. And with two defenders closing, while losing his own balance, Kluivert slotted the ball past an on-rushing goalkeeper.

The game winner.

An addiction to the beautiful game and arguably its most exciting competition took hold.

Maybe that’s a bit of an overstatement. I was already addicted. My brother and I would watch tapes of old games from the 1990 and 1994 editions of the World Cup. (I still have those tapes by the way) This was pre-MLS and pre-EPL being televised regularly where we grew up.

But there was something about that game that drove that hook even deeper. Like the first time you taste a craft beer after years of stale macro brews. Or when you get that first sip of 12-year Balvenie after growing up on bourbon. Whatever it was, I wanted more.

They made it to the finals the next season and could have been back to back champions if not for a silly defensive error. But to be honest, Juventus had one of their own that let Ajax back into the game. The final had to be settled in a shootout with the club from Turin hoisting the title. And by summer Ajax’s finest products in a generation had been shipped off to distant corners of the continent—mainly Spain and Italy.

I would be lying if I said seeing Ajax making a deep run in this year’s Champions League didn’t have me overcome with nostalgia. And not just for that spring afternoon 24 years ago in May. But for every Champions League campaign after that.

Rushing home from school to catch the last half of what ever game between whichever teams. Begging our soccer coach to delay practice so that we can catch a glimpse of our heros play each other. Jamming in a VHS cassette (I had to look that up because I had forgotten the terminology) and recording over the 1992 slam dunk contest, even if it’s only for the last 30 minutes of the game. Getting to see FC Bayern beat Glasgow Celtic at the Olympic Stadium on the opening match day of the 2003-04 Champions League.

Seeing Ajax in the semifinals does that to me. I’m not even an Ajax fan. Not in the same way, I’m a Liverpool fan, at least. But seeing them do well, seeing them make a deep run, against better funded, superstar filled squads, makes all those memories come flooding back.

And while this team may not be as dominant as the Ajax teams of the past, as, year-on-year, it’s far more difficult to keep up with the big spending Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester City, they’ve nonetheless made a strong case for keeping their club’s spot in the pantheon of footballing royalty.

A healthy mix of young and old has Ajax two games away from a Champions League Final. But undoubtedly, though, this summer will, just like in the summer of ‘96, see all those bright young superstars in Amsterdam headed off for new challenges—La Liga, The Premier League, Serie A, The Bundesliga. They’ll be Ajax’s missionaries, plying their trade and talent across the continent.

In a way it’s heartbreaking. Imagine what this side could do if they stuck together. (It should be noted that the club made it to the 2017 Europa League Finals with some of the players from this year’s team.)

But that’s the modern game. Heartwarming, heartbreaking, nostalgia-inducing.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

David is the founder of DC Soccer Digest. He lives in Washington, DC.

Turner Sports Takes Over Champions League Coverage

Last August, Turner Sports announced they would be taking over coverage of the UEFA Champions League from FOX Sports. They also have the rights to the Europa League. 

It was a surprising announcement to say the least. FOX had been the broadcasters since the 2009-10 season. And ESPN had the rights for at least 14 seasons prior to that.

For their coverage of the two European club competitions, Turner Sports is rolling out an 'over the top' (OTT) streaming service for the games not broadcast on one of their stations. Initially, there seemed to be some consideration for using TNT, TBS, and TruTV for the match days. Instead, it looks like TNT will air two games each day during the first round, while switching to one a day during the knock out phase. 

UEFA has decided to have two kickoff times for games on each match day--1pm and 3pm EST. Turner Sports will air one game from each start time on TNT. That means three games at each kick off time will not be covered on a normal cable channel. This is where the OTT streaming service will kick in. 

More than likely if you follow a big side like Manchester United, Bayern Munich, Barcelona, or Real Madrid, you can go without having to access the stream service. It seems logical that barring some weird grouping situations or timing conflicts, those teams will always be selected for the normal cable service. 

Fans whose teams aren't getting coverage will be able to buy the streaming package for $2.99/game, $9.99/month, or $79.99 for the whole year. 

But, if your team is in the Europa League, like say Chelsea, well you should probably go ahead and invest in the full year package. Or at a minimum check think about how you're going to access the streaming option. Because, Turner Sports has decided to only offer the Europa League final on their cable station. All the other games will be on the OTT service. 

Turner has taken a page from NBC's book. Last season the Premier League broadcaster utilized a similar service for the games not being broadcast on their slate of cable channels. They, like Turner, felt there was value in offering up the option to watch under-represented sides via an OTT service. 

That said, there were significant complaints about strength and the actual value. For $50/season, the service was at best inconsistent and often completely shut down. Personally, I chose not to renew my subscription for this season. I'm also a Liverpool fan and feel like they're likely to be on the cable coverage anyway. 

The Atlanta based company has also sought to boost their soccer coverage credentials by signing some notable pundits. Kate Abdo will be the host for the pre-game, halftime, between-game, and post-game coverage (interestingly enough Turner has pitched this set up as four new shows, when really it's just the same sort of game coverage we've always had). Tim Howard and Steve Nash have signed on as analysts with Stuart Holden's name mentioned as another yet to be signed.

One step up from FOX's coverage will be that Turner will use the world broadcast instead of their own in studio commentators. Alexi Lalas haters can breathe a sigh of relief knowing they won't have to listen to his voice during a Champions League match. Plus, personally, it always sounds better to have the commentators inside the park giving us the play-by-play rather than sitting in a sound booth somewhere in Atlanta or LA. 

'Cord-cutters' should like this new option, too. It's one less thing to worry about, no more boxes or weird remotes. That said, if the streaming has half the problems of the NBC Gold, it won't be worth it. 

Turner Sports looks to be banking on a business theory called "the Long Tail." It was created by Chris Anderson, Editor-in-Chief at Wired Magazine. The idea is that while bigger market items will certainly make up a majority of your revenue, smaller market items if packaged correctly in non-traditional formats could eventually produce enough revenue to rival those of the bigger markets. In this case, Turner knows their money maker, right now at least, will be the coverage of the most popular teams on their main channel. But they're also banking on the longer term expansion of revenue from coverage of teams with the smaller fan bases. If those fans move towards the OTT service to watch their team's play, they could add to Turner's revenue. 

The other side of the coin, however, could be that those smaller fan groups switching to OTT would actually cause a noticeable decrease in viewership for the games on the regular cable coverage. That may lead to less advertising revenue for Turner.

It may not matter after all. The Champions League, and to an extent the Europa League, are fairly popular here in the US. I'm genuinely curious to see if this sort of service takes off or if it flounders. Will it lead to a weakening of the popularity of the Champions League in the US? Will the streaming service crash like NBC's did all too often last season? 

All I know is I'm ready for the season to start.