La Liga

La Liga in America: The First Cracks in Europe’s Football Model

One of the most eye catching pieces of news from last week saw representatives of the AFE – the Spanish Players Union – meeting, to discuss and express their anger at La Liga’s new fifteen year deal with Relevant Sports to bring one competitive fixture in the US.

Despite the anger and potential risk of strike action, FC Girona v FC Barcelona has been picked as the first game to be broadcast in America, on match day twenty-one of this new season. La Liga chiefs seem unmoved by the captains of all twenty Spanish top flight clubs voting unanimously against taking their football to the USA. Head of the AFE David Aganzo said:

“Players were surprised and angry that such an important decision without them first being consulted.”

The payers have also raised concerns on behalf of the fans. No doubt the rest of the European football community will be watching with great interest. It could be teething problems with such a new concept. However, it could also be the start of great unrest in a country where the gap between the games’s rich and poor shows no real sign of shrinking.

The inevitable move West

The US is one of the fastest growing markets for football and there is a sense that it was only ever a matter of time before the big leagues in Europe began to eye the lucrative market as a source of new revenue. Football is now the third most popular sport in the America and has a growing fan base that is young and ready to soak up the best of the action Europe has to offer.

La Liga’s president, Javier Tebas, will have eyed the $1billion TV right’s deal done with the Premier League in 2015 with envy. For years the English game has stolen a march on the rest of the continent and grown fat of its earnings. With wage bills risings and some viewers finding “alternative” methods of viewing Spanish domestic games, club presidents are increasingly worried that their clubs will struggle to compete.

Throw wealthy, ambitious newcomers like PSG and Manchester City in to the mix and it is little wonder that Barcelona’s Josep Maria Bartomeu is targeting club revenue of $1 billion to “remain competitive.” If the US market can open up yet another revenue stream for the big boys then they are going to care little for other concerns. With hundreds of millions of global fans, many of whom are based in the United States, the deal with Relevant Sports represents a huge opportunity for the likes of Real and Barcelona.

Smaller clubs frozen out

The vote from all twenty club captains to oppose the removal of a domestic fixture from Spanish borders was an interesting development for a number of reasons. Mainly, the concern from La Liga should be, if the players do strike, what then will its ministers do? Fines and other punishments will be muted, but the presidents of the top clubs in the country will be keen to secure this deal with a minimal fuss and embarrassment as possible.

The players have taken the side of the fans, many of whom will feel the fabric of their sport is becoming frayed.

“La Liga is distancing the fans of the players, something that harms the show and the essence of football”

This wording was from a joint statement by the AFE, with the players seeming to be genuinely concerned for the well being of Spanish football. Fans of the traditionally smaller clubs will also be hoping their captains stick to their guns. If recent history has taught them anything, it’s that the big clubs have a habit of freezing out the smaller sides when it comes to their take in the earnings.

Even in the recent changes made to the domestic TV rights, the smaller clubs were frozen out, their chunk of a 25% share was to be based on their performances over five years, while another 25% was based on how many of their games were shown live. The second clause is more understandable, but after years of a disparaging ratio in the revenue it may have been a fairer option to revise this format to allow the smaller clubs to catch up.

Unfair distribution

The new deal, which came into place in 2016, is still very much stacked against the bottom teams. Sides like Alaves and Leganes received less than €40 million for their league standings in 2016/17. On the other hand, Barcelona took home €146.7 million in TV revenue money. To be fair the new distribution has improved massively from 8:1 to 4:1 but La Liga is still lagging way behind the Premier League in terms of a fair distribution of TV revenue.

With this brave now move into the US market, the smaller sides are unlikely to benefit as much as the big boys and the hope will be that their captains in AFE fight their corner. They have every right ask what’s in it for them. In fact, sides like Girona and Alaves, have every right to be furious about this deal.

The announcement that the first game to be played in America will be FC Girona’s fixtures at home to Barcelona is a perfect example of how the smaller teams are going to be at a disadvantage. Girona, in only their second season in the Spanish top flight, will have their home game unceremoniously dumped from Catalonia to US soil. The venue is supposed to be neutral, but with most of the US fans likely to back Barcelona, they have effectively lost a home game and gained an away tie. In what could become a relegation fight, the loss of home advantage, even for one game, could be very costly indeed for the Catalan minnows.

What happens next?

La Liga’s chiefs have already said they are willing to meet with the AFE and its representatives to see if this impasse can be removed. A strike from the players would be hugely embarrassing for men like Tebas who are keen to out in front of the Premier League for once. However, you cannot help but feel for the smaller clubs in Spain. Their fan bases are not the global melting pots seen at Real Madrid or Barcelona. Even some of the bigger clubs like Sociedad and Athletico Bilbao are not widely followed outside of The Basque Country. Will they be happy with this imposed deal? La Liga will hope they can get over these bumps in the road, before a smooth transition to a wonderful new world of riches.

No doubt, the rest of Europe will be keen to see what happens with this. Increasingly, clubs are looking to break the confines of their national leagues in pursuit of increased revenue. They will need the players on side though. The fans may have found someone to fight their corner at long last. The first fissure lines in the breakup of football’s traditional leagues are now well and truly exposed, whether the smaller clubs are powerful enough to keep them together remains to be seen. Ultimately they may chose to cut their losses and leave the big clubs to their own devices.

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