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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 18 November 2018

Struggles of Barcelona and Real Madrid make Primera Liga for exciting viewing

La Liga's aggressive marketing and change in system of selling TV rights give league shot in the arm

Lionel Messi's Barcelona are not in the lead, nor are rivals Real Madrid. Hence, the Primera Liga is making for exciting viewing. Reuters
Lionel Messi's Barcelona are not in the lead, nor are rivals Real Madrid. Hence, the Primera Liga is making for exciting viewing. Reuters

The front pages of Spain’s leading sport newspapers might not agree given that the leading clubs they cover are losing football matches, but this has been the most exciting start to the Primera Liga in years.

Eight games in and only two points separate the top six teams. There is only a seven-point separation between leaders Sevilla, who play at second-placed Barcelona on Saturday, and Girona in 15th.

In the Premier league, seven points only gets you from leaders Manchester City to eighth-placed Manchester United. None of England’s top three have lost a game.

Every team in the Primera Liga have lost at least one, while Barcelona have conceded nine goals in eight games and been beaten by then bottom of table Leganes.

So much for the Primera Liga being referred to dismissively as a two team league – or ‘Scotland in the sun’ before Glasgow Rangers imploded and backed out of the annual two-team race.

Barcelona and Real Madrid usually dominate. The pair have won 12 of the last 13 league titles between them (Barca nine, Madrid three), with only Atletico Madrid’s 2014 triumph interrupting the run.

Real Madrid do not look as imperious in the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo, left, and Zinedine Zidane. Reuters
Real Madrid do not look as imperious in the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo, left, and Zinedine Zidane. Reuters

It stands to reason since they are so much more economically powerful than the rest.

Barca’s budget for this season is the highest in world football off revenues of €914 million (Dh3.8 billion) for 2017/18. Footballer salaries make up 61 per cent of that figure, down four per cent as the club continues to try to reduce costs.

Real’s playing budget is €690m, Atletico’s €400m, Sevilla €200m, Valencia €120m. The budgets fall away very quickly after that, and smaller clubs such as Huesca and Eibar are working off budgets of €40m.

La Liga is aggressively marketing itself globally in a race for eyeballs with the Premier League. Playing a regular league game in the United States is a step too far for most and Real have said they will refuse to do so. But the Spanish television revenues are growing as they stall in England.

From next season, Spanish teams will annually share €1.14bn from domestic television rights, Premier League teams €1.46bn.

The gap is closing overall, as is the gap between what individual Spanish clubs – long skewed heavily in favour of the biggest two – receive. Barca received €146m last season, Real €140m, Atletico €99m and Athletic Bilbao €99m.

Real Betis are benefiting greatly from La Liga's newly-implemented television revenue system. AFP
Real Betis are benefiting greatly from La Liga's newly-implemented television revenue system. AFP

Last season was the first when La Liga sold its TV rights collectively following a change in Spanish law. Under the previous system, clubs negotiated their rights individually.

The new system is helping and attendances have risen overall, especially at clubs with new or expanding stadiums including Real Betis, Bilbao and Atletico. Levante have had great success with ticket offers to loyal fans and average crowds are 20,000.

The overall Primera Liga attendance is now an average of 27,500, a figure even more impressive since crowds have dipped at Barca and Real and that the capacity of promoted Huesca is only 7,000.

Six Spanish clubs now average over 40,000 for home games, but La Liga is conscious that there are still too many empty seats.

Partly this is because while season ticket holders get good value for money, fans choosing to attend the occasional game do not. It is €70 for a ticket on the lower tier behind the goal for the forthcoming game between Espanyol v Bilbao, a match which will be played in a half-empty stadium.

Espanyol are proving the city of Barcelona is big enough to house two successful clubs. EPA
Espanyol are proving the city of Barcelona is big enough to house two successful clubs. EPA

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But Espanyol are resurgent and in fifth, a position they have not finished as high as since 2005. A city as big as Barcelona should be able to support two major clubs, more so when Madrid-based sides now occupy a record quarter of all the top-flight spots.

With 30 games to go, few would be surprised if Barca and Real started to pull clear of the rest as they do most seasons. But a youthful Real without Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane do not look imperious and nor does Barca’s defence.

Real Sociedad came within a game of winning the league in 2002, Sevilla within two games in 2007. And Deportivo La Coruna and Valencia did actually win it this century.

A league in which neither Barca nor Real triumph remains unlikely, but it makes for hugely entertaining watching as the old order is shaken up for the time being.