By Alan Baldwin
LONDON (Reuters) - Top European soccer clubs have discussed changing the Champions League to ensure the elite are always in it and the likes of Premier League leaders Leicester City are not, according to a U.S. sports executive involved in the talks.
Charlie Stillitano, chairman of Relevent Sports, met representatives of five of the biggest Premier League clubs on Tuesday to discuss a new structure for Europe's top club competition, which he says would better reward those clubs which generate most of the revenues in the sport.
Relevent Sports is controlled by billionaire Stephen Ross, owner of the NFL's Miami Dolphins.
Arsenal -- who joined Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United at the talks in London -- said afterwards they supported the current competition structure.
Television companies across Europe spend big money for the rights to broadcast matches in the continent's premier club competition.
BT paid 897 million pounds ($1.27 billion) for a three-year contract for exclusive live coverage of the Champions League in the U.K. starting this season.
European soccer's ruling body UEFA, which organizes the Champions League, said on Friday it was working hard to finalize the format of all its club competitions for the 2018-21 cycle by the end of this year.
Acting general secretary Theodore Theodoridis told reporters that was a big challenge but UEFA had experienced a "very positive attitude" in discussions with clubs.
The formats for European competitions can be changed at the end of every three-year cycle, with the present one finishing next year.
Entry into the Champions League is determined solely by where teams finish in their own domestic league, meaning even the giants of the game can miss out if they have a poor season.
However, Stillitano told Sirius XM satellite radio that a possible restructuring of the Champions League was being discussed all over Europe.
"When they came up with the Champions League, the idea wasn't to have PSV (Eindhoven) and Ghent playing in the knockout stage," he said.
Ghent, who last year ended a 115-year wait for the Belgian league title, made their Champions League debut this season and in December became only the second Belgian side to advance to the knockout phase.
They joined the likes of European giants Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus in the last 16 while past winners Manchester United and Liverpool are absent and may not qualify next season either.
On current form, unheralded Premier League leaders Leicester City, who could take a surprise first domestic title, and Tottenham Hotspur will be close behind.
Stillitano indicated the likes of Leicester and Ghent would have no place in a closed Champions League.
"There are several different groups among Europe's top clubs that want a fairer share from the Champions League," he said, pointing to the ICC, or International Champions Cup, as a better example.
The ICC is a friendly pre-season tournament played in the United States, China and Australia between local and top European clubs and organized by Relevent.
"What would Manchester United argue? Did we create soccer or did Leicester?," said Stillitano.
"Let's call it the money pot created by soccer and the fandom around the world. Who has had more of an integral role, Manchester United or Leicester? (Leicester is) a wonderful, wonderful story but you could see it from Manchester United's point of view too."
A spokeswoman for Manchester United did not comment on Stillitano's specific remarks but said the club was happy with current competition structures.
Leicester, known as the Foxes, were founded in 1884 and elected to the Football league in 1894.
United are England's richest club, having won 20 league titles and in 1998-99 becoming the first English club to achieve the treble of Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League.
Stillitano said big clubs might not have a Champions League 'birthright' but "it's the age-old argument: US sports franchises versus what they have in Europe.
"There are wonderful, wonderful elements to relegation and promotion and there are good arguments for a closed system."
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin; Editing by Ed Osmond)