The Europe League is European football’s secondary European club competition, behind the much more lucrative and highly regarded UEFA Champions League. The Europe League in a previous incarnation was known as the UEFA Cup and sadly even in this incarnation it was regarded more highly than the current format.
This was contested like the old Champions League (European Cup), with teams playing each other over two legs, home and away, with the losing side (on aggregate) being knocked out. There was no league format and the tournament ran like this until the final which was just one match (as it is today)
Currently Europa League places are awarded to clubs from top European countries that finish below the Champions League spots, but high enough to achieve European qualification. The highest placed team(s) from each league will automatically begin the competition at the group stage, where lower placed sides will be subjected to up to three qualifying rounds before reaching the group stage.
The group stages take on the same format as the UEFA Champions League, 4 teams of 12, with each team playing the other 3 teams in their group home and away. The 12 group winners and 12 runners up are joined in the knockout phase by the 8 third placed teams from Champions League group stage, making a 32 team knockout round. This is whittled down to the last two teams who then contest the final. The quality of the teams in the Europa League is much poorer than in the premier UEFA competition and for this reason it is much maligned.
It’s fair to say a wholesale overhaul is now overdue, to get the prestige of the competition back to what it once was. There are several ways that this could be achieved; for one thing the name probably needs to revert back to the original UEFA Cup. Europa League screams a poor man’s Champions League and further shows that the competition is trying to ape its superior counterpart.
The prize money is also a concern, with the Europa Cup winners picking up less than half of the prize money collected by the winner of the top tier competition. A more lucrative prize package would surely improve the profile and lure of the competition.
A reversion to the old UEFA Cup format of knockout matches every round, as opposed to trying to copy the group stages format of the Champions League may also help to raise the competitions popularity and profile. A knockout format adds something different, upping the chances of shock results and making the tournament more interesting. The current format of copying its opposite number process just makes for a lower quality version of that tournament.
A further way for the competition to develop would be to change the domestic league formats so that less teams qualify for the Champions League, freeing up spaces for the Europa League, thus meaning a higher quality of teams competing in the Europa League, leading to increased viewership and a higher profile of tournament.