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May 15, 2014

UEFA offers bigger rewards

Sevilla goalkeeper Beto, 32, said winning the Europa League 'is the pinnacle of my career'. The Lisbon-born 'keeper thwarted Benfica's Óscar Cardozo and Rodrigo in a penalty shoot-out.

TURIN, Italy -- Rewards for winning the often-unloved Europa League are getting bigger, maybe even enough to ignite more interest in countries like England and Italy.

Sevilla beat Benfica on penalties
Financial rewards for Europa League are growing.

Lomas: Benfica 'curse' strikes again

Sevilla's penalty shootout victory over Benfica on Wednesday after a 0-0 draw was the last final before UEFA offers winners a place in the following season's Champions League.

"By introducing this reward there is a feeling that teams will take it more seriously," UEFA Events marketing director Guy-Laurent Epstein said.

An expected 20 percent increase in prize money from 2015 should also help with clubs likely to share about 250 million euros ($342 million).

The European Club Association says its 200-plus members are happy with the Europa League. However, it acknowledges a need to close a "big financial gap" between the globally successful Champions League and an event re-branded from the UEFA Cup only five years ago.

Today, that gulf is more than 1 billion euros ($1.4 billion) each season.

"We have to be pragmatic -- Europa League is not Champions League," Epstein told The Associated Press ahead of the final. "It's for teams that are more community (based) rather than international brands most of the time."

Sevilla is one club where the Europa League has no image or identity issues.

"It's a competition our fans really like," said Sevilla coach Unai Emery, whose club won the former UEFA Cup in 2006 and '07. "We thought we had the responsibility to win."

Still, even those UEFA Cups were different to its 1970s and 1980s prime.

Then, there was a popular trinity of UEFA competitions: the European Cup for national champions; the UEFA Cup for runners-up and other high-placed teams; and the Cup Winners Cup.

After the European Cup became the Champions League in 1992 -- giving more games to elite clubs -- the other two declined until the cup winners' event was abolished in 1999.

The Europa League was launched in 2009 to rebrand an event bloated with clubs, playing in unfamiliar Thursday slots and a complex format with Champions League losers coming over at different stages.

Some clubs judged the Europa League not worth the bother and effectively fielded reserve teams. That was despite FC Porto and Atletico Madrid using the second-tier title as a springboard.

Coached by Jose Mourinho, Porto won the UEFA Cup in 2003 and the next year's Champions League. Atletico Madrid will play city rival Real Madrid for the biggest club prize next week after winning Europa League titles in 2010 and 2012.

Epstein said feedback from England had been "rather negative" but believes that will change, helped by Chelsea winning the title last year.

Italian clubs need good Europa League results to boost their rankings in a long process to regain a fourth Champions League entry for Serie A. Winning the Europa League is a faster road to that goal.

The cash prize from UEFA for winning the Europa League is typically about 14 million euros ($19 million). Sevilla earned its share during a 19-match, nine-month labor.

Nice money in the Financial Fair Play era, yet only half of what a big-market club gets for a six-match trip through a Champions League group which ends in December.

Adding the Europa League's annual 40 million euros ($54.7 million) subsidy from the Champions League, UEFA distributes about 210 million euros ($287 million) directly to clubs taking part. Most of the 1.3 billion-plus ($1.8 billion) Champions League annual commercial revenue is spread among the 32 group-stage clubs. Top earners get more than 60 million euros ($82 million).

Epstein said he expects rising Europa League earnings for the 2015-18 seasons.

"I think it will pass the 300 million euros ($400 million) bar in the next cycle," said the marketing chief, though no sponsor deals have yet been sealed.

Other changes include more direct group-stage entries for high-ranked nations and domestic cup runners-up being denied places.

However, a coveted Saturday slot for the final is unavailable in the crowded May calendar.

Played Saturdays since 2010, Champions League finals get 170 million-plus television audiences. Epstein said he expected the Sevilla-Benfica match would draw 60-70 million.

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