x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Primera Liga trying to grow into more than two-team show

Javier Tebas, La Liga's president, looks to level the financial playing field in Spain, while defending Real Madrid's €100m Bale deal.

Neymar, left, and Gareth Bale, right, are just two examples of how the top two clubs in La Liga far outpace the rest of the copmetition. Pierre-Philippe Marcou / AFP
Neymar, left, and Gareth Bale, right, are just two examples of how the top two clubs in La Liga far outpace the rest of the copmetition. Pierre-Philippe Marcou / AFP

DUBAI // By the end of Gareth Bale’s first 12 months at Real Madrid, he will have pocketed €6 million (Dh30.5m), the equivalent of one euro for each of Spain’s unemployed population.

Compare that to the level of expenditure at Rayo Vallecano, a La Liga competitor, whose entire playing budget is just €7m, and the disparity in revenue between Spanish football’s haves and have-nots is as blatant as a stonewall penalty.

This season marks a decade since Valencia won the domestic title and the side from the south of Spain remain the last club outside of Madrid or Barcelona to be crowned domestic champions. While lack of competitiveness has undoubtedly hurt the league’s progression, the presence of players such as Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar ensure that at least the top teams remain attractive and growing.

One statistic rolled out by La Liga officials during a recent conversation in Dubai was that last season’s clasico attracted a television audience of 400 million viewers – three times that of the NFL’s Super Bowl. Javier Tebas, the president of the Spanish league, also hailed the fact the majority of the European and World Cup winners play in Spain.

A cynic might make note that el clasico features only two clubs, while the majority of the Spanish national team also play for the Big Two or in a different country. Remove Barcelona and Real Madrid and what do you have?

“We believe that there are other ingredients to La Liga than just these two teams,” Tebas said. “If you look at Atletico Madrid they have David Villa, and other teams provide international audiences, as well. Said that, having the two best clubs in the world can never be a problem. What we want is to raise the bar for other clubs to come up to that level.”

One way in which Tebas is attempting to achieve this is by overhauling the distribution of television rights fees, he said. According to La Liga’s president, the 2009 winners were given 13 times more TV money than the bottom-placed club. This year, the winners received 6.5 times as much. Within three years, Tebas wants to push it down to 4.5 times as much for the winners as the side who are 20th.

“We understand the situation and are taking measures to raise the overall bar, while never decreasing the level of Real Madrid and Barcelona,” he said. “The 2016/17 season is an important season in the financial plans of La Liga because some clubs that have had a hard time financially are going to be finally balanced by then.”

Madrid, with their 80,000 season-ticket holders, are able to spend more because they raise more – and not just from television. It is a similar situation at Barcelona, where their match with Rayo at Camp Nou saw the travelling season-ticket holders being charged €10-12 while the cheapest one-off ticket for a tourist was €97.

For a league looking to grow its international market – and it is for this reason Tebas, elected in April, has been on a worldwide charm offensive – surely the prohibitive tourist ticket prices threaten to hurt the league’s ambition?

Tebas does not believe that to be the case.

“It’s cheap,” he said. “Because probably a Rolling Stones concert would be more expensive. Barcelona and Real Madrid are attractive to tourists; Messi and Neymar are like football’s Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. But while revenues are extremely important in football, it doesn’t necessarily translate into greater sporting performances. They are two different things.”

The ability of Madrid to raise the €91m (earlier reported as a record €100m) to buy Bale certainly aids their chances of success. Questions, however, have been raised regarding Madrid’s means of funding the deal, with Barcelona’s Gerard Pique accusing his rivals of living outside their means courtesy of help from the Spanish lender Bankia.

With Spain suffering from a dire economy and unprecedented unemployment rates, the Bale transfer was labelled immoral by some observers. Tebas denies Madrid used bank loans to fund the Bale deal, but he did concede part of the record £80m (Dh476.2m) fee paid to Manchester United in 2009 for Cristiano Ronaldo was funded by lenders.

“The problem is not borrowing the money, but returning it,” Tebas said. “In the case of Bale, the investment of Real Madrid has been completely funded by the club. Spending €100m is not necessarily a problem because the money is not being thrown down the drain. The problem is when you cannot pay your debts.

“Real Madrid have proved a successful model by paying back the loans through money generated by their investments. Those investments have also been very positive for the league in terms of attendances and interest, so it is definitely not a waste. As long as they pay that money back, then they fulfil their obligations. That is the logic.”

It is a logic not without risk, but Tebas insists it is a better model than that of several English Premier League clubs, some of whom rely on the personal wealth of foreign owners.

“What do you think is a more sensible model: one where you spend whatever revenues you make on a consistent and sustainable basis, or a model like Manchester City or Chelsea where you have somebody making substantial investments, but the level of investment is far from what they are able to bring in through revenues?”