How a change at CONMEBOL propelled the Copa Libertadores into another dimension

· by WFS2017

By Euan McTear

The Copa Libertadores has always been one of the leading football tournaments in the world. Dating back to 1960, the South American continental championship came into being just five years after the European Cup was created and the prestige associated with winning the Copa Libertadores is immeasurable.

What is measurable, though, is the revenue the tournament creates and the Copa Libertadores has never been the money-making machine that the Champions League became. Until now, perhaps. Since Alejandro Domínguez took over as President of CONMEBOL, football’s governing body in South America, in January of 2016, the organisation has gone from strength to strength.

Alejandro Domínguez, President of CONMEBOL (Reuters).

“We found an organisation that was financially and morally bankrupt, but from those ashes and with clear work we are generating more value for football and we’re transforming South American football,” Domínguez said in April of 2019 at the CONMEBOL congress. “Now we’re celebrating records.”

Records like the US $500m of income that CONMEBOL expects to bring in during the course of 2019. While this also includes projected revenues from the Copa América and Copa Sudamericana, the main driver of these strong financial projections is the Copa Libertadores.

In 2015, the year before the regime change at CONMEBOL, the Copa Libertadores generated US $66.687m in income, rising to US $121.882m in 2016, then US $145.798m in 2017 and then US $159.243m in 2018. That’s an increase of 139%. Compared to the 34% increase in competition revenue reported by UEFA in the same time period, that’s astonishing.

The CONMEBOL Libertadores has increased its income in 139% since 2015 compared to the 34% increase in competition revenue reported by UEFA in the same time period

Piniolla (RIver Plate) and Benedetto (Boca Juniors), after last year’s final in Bernabeu Stadium.

The South American clubs who compete in the Copa Libertadores are the ones who stand to benefit the most from this, as 73.4% of the 2019 CONMEBOL income will be distributed in the form of prize money, while all but 5.8% of the income will be channelled directly back into football in some form. Compared to 2015, Copa Libertadores total prize money is up 210%, more than tripling.

It’s not just in financial terms that the Copa Libertadores is growing bigger. Attendances are up too. Not counting the second leg of the 2018 final, that was played between River Plate and Boca Juniors in Madrid, the 2018 Copa Libertadores attracted 3,484,814 fans to the stadiums across South America, an increase of 15% compared to the previous year, even with the number of matches staying the same. While figures for the complete 2019 season aren’t out yet, it has been shown that 481,055 fans attended the first three phases of this year’s tournament, representing an increase of 25.1% compared to the 2018 edition.

Graciela Garay, during WFS19.

So how has CONMEBOL managed all this growth? Broadcast deals that are more lucrative than ever have been important. The organisation professionalised its tender process, working with IMG and Perform to reach an expected TV income of US $1,400m for the three-year cycle between 2019 and 2022. Intriguingly, a deal has also been reached with Facebook to stream matches on the social network. “This alliance with Facebook is another step forward in our efforts to bring football to all corners of South America,” stated CONMEBOL’s Clubs Commercial Director Juan Emilio Roa.

New sponsors have come in too and it is telling that Mastercard has agreed to sponsor the Copa Libertadores for the first time. For the long-time sponsor of UEFA’s Champions League to embrace the South American equivalent as well is evidence of how far the competition has advanced in recent years.

Ask Alejandro Domínguez and he’ll say that a change in the organisation’s culture has been the key. As he explained at this year’s CONMEBOL congress: “Where there was a closed organisation, today we have transparency. Where there was personal fiefdom, today we have an institution. Where there was improvisation, today we have professionalism. Where there were half-baked rules, today we have clear laws. Where value was taken for personal gain, today we generate value for all.

Graciela Garay, the CONMEBOL Ethics and Compliance Officer, echoed this sentiment as she spoke on a panel at the 2019 World Football Summit, titled ‘Fútbol Latino, Latest Commercial Developments in a Region Full of Talent’. “The biggest obstacle was reconstructing a non-existent institution,” she said. “We still have obstacles and it’s about a cultural change. It’s about going step by step and I think that all the good we do in the institution will in the long term be seen on the pitches. It has been a 180-degree change.”

This is clear to see in the numbers and the recent results. Since 2016, the Copa Libertadores has evolved to become a commercially lucrative tournament, one that can generate the kind of revenue that will drive South American football even further forward. More can be done and more will be done, not least with new CONMEBOL rules on security at stadiums to make the grounds even more family friendly. As the 2019 edition approaches the final, which will be a one-off match for the first time, the future looks bright for this prestigious tournament.