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Last summer, with the coronavirus raging through Europe, leaders at European soccer’s governing body huddled to find a way to salvage the Champions League, one of the game’s most popular competitions and among its biggest sources of revenue for its elite clubs.

With borders closed to all but essential travel, the Champions League’s traditional home-and-away format was abandoned and replaced by an eight-team knockout tournament in one city: Lisbon, Portugal. The new format, born out of crisis, was a hit and produced thrilling matches, soaked in jeopardy, and huge global TV audiences.

The changes proved so popular with Champions League organizers, in fact, that they are giving serious consideration to incorporating some of them permanently.

As Chelsea and Manchester City prepare to meet Saturday in this season’s final, leaders of European soccer’s governing body, the Union of European Football Associations, which runs the Champions League, are preparing to unveil a plan to change the format of the final stages of the competition. They have alighted on a “champions week” concept in which two winner-take-all semi-finals and the final will be played in one city and supplemented by a schedule of concerts, games and other events.

Champions League officials refused to discuss proposed changes on the record this week, but interviews with several officials involved in the discussions confirmed that the idea is under serious consideration. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they have not formally discussed the idea with the clubs that would be affected by the changes.

The concept of a so-called champions week, which would produce the focused drama of the final weekend of a tennis major or college basketball’s Final Four, has been considered before. Soccer’s leaders have for years cast envious glances toward the NFL’s management of the Super Bowl in the hope of emulating its week of pregame festivities for its own blue-ribbon event. But fearful of disrupting soccer’s traditions — and of endangering any broadcast revenue by losing two semi-final games — they have shied away from making any major changes.

Until the pandemic changed everything.

Talks about a champions week gathered pace after the emergency event last year in Lisbon. Executives from the participating clubs spoke positively about the event and — crucially — reviewed data that showed the TV audiences held up with a neutral-site, single-elimination format for the biggest games.

For the UEFA, which has already announced the most fundamental changes to the format of the Champions League in a generation, there is an important financial calculation to be made. The Champions League semi-finals, currently played in home-and-away ties in the participants’ home stadiums, are some of the most sought-after TV properties in soccer.

“At the end of the day, you are talking about removing two fixtures between two of the best four teams in the competition,” said Julian Aquilina, a TV analyst at the research company Enders Analysis.

According to senior UEFA executives, though, the estimated audiences for the semi-finals are large enough to mitigate most of the losses of losing the second legs. The change would most likely be cheered by leaders of Europe’s domestic leagues, who have long complained about the encroachment on the soccer calendar of more and more European games, and possibly even by advocates for the growing women’s game, if their own showcase final was pulled onto a bigger stage as part of a weeklong celebration.

The plan most likely would see other events — including concerts, legends games and a youth final — take place in the host city. The week would culminate, as always, in the final Saturday night.

“The sponsors will love it,” said Tim Crow, a consultant who has advised several major companies involved in events such as the World Cup and the Olympics. “The Super Bowl model is like that — when it’s not about the game, it’s about the week.”

Crow said the event’s current format means attention generally shifts to the Champions League’s denouement only on the day before the final.

“This way you have a much more concentrated and longer period of activation,” he said. “The big thing in sports at the moment is landing somewhere and spending concentrated time there. This is very much of its time; it gives a lot more depth to it.”

Any changes would not go into effect until at least 2024, when the new Champions League format begins. UEFA would not be the first regional body to reshape its biggest club championship; CONCACAF, the governing body for soccer in North and Central America and the Caribbean, recently announced that it would abandon a two-legged club final as part of a series of changes.

UEFA published a financial analysis last week that predicted the continent’s top-flight clubs would sustain losses of more than €8-billion (nearly $12-billion) as a result of the coronavirus. Manchester City, the Premier League champion, has attributed a loss of nearly $217-million to the pandemic, while Italian champion Inter Milan, which recently secured its first domestic title in a decade, now faces a fire sale to make ends meet.

Faced with the continentwide cash crunch, and perhaps as an olive branch to the erstwhile rebels, UEFA has entered into discussions with two private equity funds to raise as much as €6-billion in rescue financing for European clubs. The money would be borrowed against future revenues, including the billions produced annually by the Champions League, and provided to clubs through a type of rating system based on their likelihood of repaying it through appearance in the biggest competitions.

New York Times News Service