x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Is television cash worth a strike for Spanish football?

Every top-flight club has a game this week and the Spanish league want to suspend games as a protest at a 1997 rule which allows one game to be shown for free on television each week.

Barcelona are supposed to be playing at Villarreal this weekend in an intriguing top-four clash. Real Madrid should be at home to Sporting Gijon while a resurgent Levante could entertain Malaga. Every other top-flight club may have a game.

"Supposed", "should", "may' and "could" because, as it stands, no professional games will take place in Spain this weekend.

The Spanish league (LFP) want to suspend games as a protest at a 1997 government rule which allows one Primera Liga game to be shown for free on television each week.

The league and its member clubs want to sell the rights as subscription packages as is the norm in other countries rather than give product away for free.

They argue that they would attain a much higher price without the free-to-air weekly game.

The clubs agree with the league, although to differing degrees. Barcelona and Real Madrid are quite happy if the strike goes ahead — only the word strike gets the league very tetchy.

Few will have sympathy for striking millionaire footballers in a country where unemployment is by far the highest in western Europe at 20 per cent.

The league prefer the term "stoppage"; regardless, Spain's giants would welcome a weekend off to prepare for key Champions League games next week.

As it stands, all the matches would be postponed and pushed back a week, although end-of-season internationals mean the final round of league fixtures will not be played until June 12.

Not every club feels the same as Barca and Real. Six of them - Sevilla, Villarreal, Athletic Bilbao, Real Sociedad, Espanyol and Zaragoza - have broken ranks and said that they do not support the strike.

The six initially supported the principle behind the action, but not for it to go so far as a strike and they want to play at the weekend.

These clubs have filed a legal challenge to try to prevent the strike, saying that it would be "disproportionate, inopportune, against the interest of clubs, the competition and supporters and, what's more, against the law".

They must make their case today at court hearing in Madrid, but the situation is shambolic and the league's president Jose Luis Astiazaran said he saw "very little chance" of finding a solution to the suspension of games at the weekend.

Almost no consideration has been given to the supporters. Kick-off times are already announced notoriously late and away followings are much smaller in Spain than northern Europe, but, nonetheless, fans have made travel plans for the weekend.

The government have put pressure on the league, with the sports minister issuing a gentle reminder that the top-flight clubs collectively owe €650 million (Dh3.3 billion) in unpaid taxes.

The bigger picture is that the Primera Liga seeks to be more profitable.

It bills itself as the best in the world and while you will find plenty of agreement in Iberia, others view it differently.

Spain may boast many of the best players and the most glamorous club match in el clasico, but it lags a long way behind England's Premier League for international television rights.

The reasons are several fold: Spanish games often kick off in the evening - which is the middle of the night in Asia.

Premier League games kick off in the afternoon - or the evening in Asia, making watching them a popular pastime. The aspect of competition is key, too.

The Barca-Real duopoly does not enhance the league's credibility - and a major factor in that is because of a disparity in television revenues among clubs. Television money has become a big issue in Spain, but is it worth striking over?

That will be decided in a Madrid court this morning.

 

sports@thenational.ae