The introduction of the UEFA Europa Conference League tertiary club competition in the 2021-22 season has allowed clubs in smaller European leagues to advance from a sporting and financial sense.

This has certainly been the case for Welsh soccer club The New Saints (TNS) as Welsh teams have traditionally not tended to make it past the first qualifying stage in European competitions. 

In TNS’ first Conference League appearance in 2021-22, they reached the third qualifying round, only losing to the Czech Republic’s Viktoria Plzeň on penalties after extra time, having won the first leg 4-2. Clubs like TNS feel the competition could do a lot to level the playing field in European soccer.

Speaking in the lead-up to their first Scottish Challenge Cup final on Sunday (March 24), TNS chairman Mike Harris explains the advantages of the Conference League, how a club of TNS’ size manages to operate financially, and the need to improve competition in the Cymru Premier.

What is TNS’ partnership strategy?

We've always tried to use the values of the football club to try and attract good sponsorship, but sponsors only want to hand over money if they’re going to get something for it, so we're more than happy to help sponsors get the best out of any deal.

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I’ve been involved in the football club for 20-odd years, and we were one of the original sponsors so that sponsorship was a name change. It started with a shirt sponsorship and moved to a name change to Total Network Solutions. That helped my company grow, but it also helped The New Saints Football Club become the league champions in 2000. So that partnership worked very well.

We're always open to how we can best use the club to push sponsors' agenda. We've got Recycling UK as a shirt sponsor and their ambition is to put something back into their local community. We help them do that and also get their brand recognized on a national and international stage.

We try to tailor sponsorship packages to suit the needs of the organization.

How does TNS generate most of its income?

Through prize money, sponsorship, and player sales. So both of the main revenue streams, plus income we get through normal football channels of gate, TV, and competing in Europe.

How has the Europa Conference League impacted the club’s finances?

It's a great new competition that UEFA thought through very well. Historically there was the Champions League, which is very high profile, great if you're in it, but not so great if you're not. The Europa League is a very good competition, but again, it's difficult to satisfy the needs of everybody with a limited number of places.

The historical competition that was there instead didn't have any gravitas. So it was usually more expensive to be in the competition, than what you got out of it.

UEFA was very clever, it's given a competition of meaningfulness to the clubs at the top level from many of the minor European countries, but it’s also got big names in it. So there's a waterfall effect for a champion club in small nations, providing you win round one of the Champions League, you have a chance to waterfall to the Europa and then to the Conference League. So there is a good challenge for the minor country obtaining some form of group stage competition within Europe.

What hurdles do you face in growing as a club within a relatively small league?

The soccer establishment within Britain tends to believe that the English league is the only credible one.

The media, like Sky and the big broadcasters, because they've spent so much money, are reluctant for something else to emerge. You're always fighting against the establishment.

The Football Association of Wales (FAW) has moved the game along considerably in the last 10 to 20 years, but there's still more to do. There's a job of work to find sponsors and broadcasters who are interested in the content and to find a way to help fund all the clubs so that the whole league could become a full-time league, which would again push the league and the quality forward to another level which indirectly helps the results in Europe and get more money.

You can't measure that in a 12-month business plan. That's a succession of years. Soccer is one of those businesses in which you can only judge your business plan based on a five-year minimum rollout. You've got to keep being in a position where you're financially viable to continue regardless of whether you've been successful in that period or not.

Are there any specific actions you would want the FAW to take?

Change for the sake of change isn't a good thing, and I've always relayed that message. I'd love to see a bigger league, but a bigger league without funding to go with it would make it worse, maybe more interesting to the supporter, but ultimately our incomes are dictated by results.

The challenge that the FAW has got, and it's one which TNS and many of the other clubs would be happy to help, is to try and find the broadcasters and sponsors that are prepared to fund this competition. To invest a considerable amount of money that would still get far better returns in terms of coverage per pound spent than what they would do in some of the more major leagues.

What would success in the next five to 10 years look like for TNS?

In five years, we must get into the group stages of one of the three European competitions. On the 10-year horizon, we'll have wanted to have done that multiple times. By the time we do it on multiple occasions, our club will not be a team that always gets knocked out at the group stage, we'll put the learning and reputation into breaking out of that group stage and entering the end of a competition. Ultimately, every club's ambition is to win a competition, but perhaps that's not a 10-year journey, that's probably more.

What challenges do you anticipate facing and how do you plan to overcome them?

There's always the challenge of making sure the game is economically viable. Not just our club, but all the other clubs in the league have to be because you're only as good as the teams you beat.

One of the main threats to the game is that if the competition gets tinkered with for the sake of tinkering, without them finding the appropriate amount of investment, that could damage the game.

Is diversification of sponsors key to a club like TNS?

Yes, certainly. We have SiFi Network, HealthPoint, Liverpool airport, and Planet Hippo and there are many more who all had certain degrees of greater or lesser success within them. Some are small sponsors, a few hundred pounds, some of the sponsors have some thousands of pounds, and they've all had relatively good outcomes from being attached to the football club.