When Barcelona whirled through Almería’s defence from kick-off and just missed with their first shot, you could see Almería’s players thinking: “Whew, only 89 minutes left.”
The match, earlier this season, was never a match. Little Almería’s annual revenues are just €21m ($31m, £19m), 5 per cent of Barcelona’s, and if they had brought any supporters along I could not see them. Almería got away lightly that night, losing only 1-0. However, the Spanish league is out of whack.
Until recently the world’s best football league, La Liga is now a metaphor for the global chasm between rich and poor. Only two clubs, Barça and Real Madrid, have any hope of becoming champions. They hogged the league’s top two spots in four of the past five seasons, and are likely to do so again this year. Spanish football has become a duopoly like the Scottish league. “Scotland with sunflower seeds”, someone called it recently.
It is easy to rant about the imbalance. But the question is whether fans mind it – or whether in fact they prefer unbalanced leagues.
The source of Spain’s imbalance is that each club can sell its own television rights. “That’s not a very intelligent way of doing it,” Francisco Roca Pérez, chief executive of the Spanish professional league, told the International Football Arena conference in Zurich last September. He said Barça and Real pocket
47 per cent of the league’s total income of €1.8bn. “So you have a huge imbalance. On the international side it’s great. But on the domestic side it’s a problem. We feel we have to improve things.”
In theory, Spain could go the English route. The Premier League divides its television revenues more equally, and there Manchester United has only about five times more total income than the smallest club.
But Spain will not do that. Barcelona is the world’s best team thanks to its outsize earnings from television. There is no other way a mid-sized country such as Spain could support such a giant. The Big Two, therefore, are not about to hand out gifts to fleas like Almería. The Spanish league’s president, José Luis Astiazarán, explains that he hopes to increase total television revenues rather than distribute them differently. “It’s the big teams that have big importance on TV,” he points out. Nobody in China stays up at night to watch Almería.
Mr Astiazarán argues: “Some other teams have begun to reach a very high sporting level, like Sevilla and Valencia. I think the gap is shrinking.” Indeed, some other Spanish teams are strong. But they have funded this through debt spending. Valencia, for example, owes €424m. Spanish banks and local governments are in enough trouble now without continuing to finance this sort of thing. Already the lesser clubs are finding it harder to borrow. This month Valencia may have to sell its stars David Villa and David Silva, perhaps to the Big Two.
Spanish fans and media are fast figuring out that the other clubs barely matter any more. On the weekend of the recent “clásico” between Barça and Real, El Pais ran a pull-out supplement on the match but did not even report on Valencia’s and Sevilla’s games. Barça’s chief executive Joan Oliver says: “Increasingly for Barça fans, and I think for Madrid fans, the interest in European leagues is more than in the national league. European competition is really open.”
Yet fans are not turning off the unbalanced Spanish league. To the contrary: they love it. Mr Roca Pérez says: “Both in terms of television ratings, and attendance at stadiums, we are at the top historically.” This confirms what sports economists have long argued: few sports fans want equality. Most of them support big clubs and are happier when Barça or Real thrash Almería than when Almería pulls an upset.
Even fans of small clubs enjoy imbalance. They relish the David vs Goliath encounters. Much of the point of supporting Almería, or Sevilla, comes from resenting the Big Two. Spain is discovering that, in sport at least, inequality works.
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