Matt Scott: Spanish tuning in to collective bargaining

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“Everything was interconnected… This created a blanket that allowed him to dive without fear into the unknown and conquer the challenges that lay before him.” From Together We’re Heavy, The Polyphonic Spree

Against Georgia tonight Spain will likely confirm their qualification to the 2014 World Cup as Group I winners. It will extend the world champions’ playing record over 30 international matches to W22 D7 L1.

As football lovers recognise, this indomitability has been based on their intricate webs of passing and a defence that brings all elements of the team to bear in a symphony of pressing movement. Over a period that has seen them win the three continental and world tournaments played since 2008, Spain have repeatedly demonstrated that together they’re heavy.

For all its hegemonic success, however, off the pitch and at club level the national team’s ideology has not been carried through. For the Spanish league has a more fragmented approach to its business. The collective dynamic La Roja made its own on the pitch has been adopted by other nations such as England and Italy, who have prospered financially by applying collectivism to their TV rights sales. But in Spain that system does not apply.

The clubs whose players principally populate the Spanish national team, Real Madrid and Barcelona, have benefited from a system that allows them to sell their TV rights on an individual basis. This works for them: according to Deloitte’s Football Money League, Real earned €158.7 million from broadcasting in 2009-10, with Barça taking €178.1 million that season. But it has come at a tremendous cost to other clubs.

According to José María Gay de Liébana, a Spanish economics professor, and his report Las Trémulas Finanzas de los Reinos Futbolísticos de Europa, in the same 2009-10 season TV rights revenues in Spain were less than €630 million in total. That was less than half the Premier League’s broadcast income that year and only about three-quarters of what Serie A earned. Take away Real and Barça’s revenues and the other 18 clubs were sharing less than €360 million between them. (Of Real’s €158.7 million total TV income, €26.825 million was derived from UEFA; similarly €39.061 million of Barcelona’s.)

Now Javier Tebas, the chairman of the Liga de Fútbol Profesional, wants to corral all member clubs into a single, collective agreement. “Centralisation is not an easy thing to solve but in 2016-17 it will be solved and all the clubs will sell their rights on a collective basis,” Tebas told Insideworldfootball in London last week.

“The important thing is to know why it is happening and to try to find solutions and for us to maintain the value for everyone, not just Real Madrid and Barcelona.

“It is very important to have these brands [Real and Barça]. But we need to make new brands like Atlético Madrid, Sevilla etc. We need sporting success to drive TV rights values. Atlético are five points ahead of Real in La Liga. Last year Atlético won the Copa Del Rey and the Super Cup. Real Madrid and Barcelona were in the semi-final of the Champions League. So we have very successful clubs.”

Tebas stressed that he does not want to erode the TV incomes of Spain’s two biggest earners but people might question why either would endorse a new system that could improve other clubs’ revenues, threatening their own domestic primacy. But maybe the status quo does not suit Real and Barça either.

As Spain’s jobless rate rose to a record 26.3% in the second quarter of this year, pay-TV, the key driver of broadcast incomes for football clubs, suffered a crisis of its own. In the 18 months between December 2011 and June this year, the pay-TV networks shed more than 630,000 households, or almost one-in-seven of their entire subscriber base (see table).

As with all bidding processes, TV-rights revenues are driven by competition in the market. If those dwindling subscriber numbers lead to network failures, then the competition for Real and Barça’s individual offerings will be less fierce. That will lead to less revenue for the big two, which neither wants.

One difficulty Tebas and the LFP face in trying to collectivise the deal in Spain is that specific competition rules on sales of TV packages on an exclusive basis, as in Italy and England, are not permitted. Listing rules demand some games are made free to air. Liberalised news rights mean no highlights may be paid for either. “This lowers values,” said Tebas of the highlights-show disadvantage. “We calculate we’re losing €150 million each year on this.”

Tebas says he is working hard to expand his league’s international incomes and to limit the damaging impact of piracy on revenues. These measures, along with a relaxation of rules over listing and the exclusivity ban, might be the quid pro quo for Real and Barça to agree to a new collective deal including them. If not and a collective deal is railroaded, then Spain’s big two risk losing the revenues that have given them the resources to create between them the most successful national team in history.

And if faced with that, then they might look for growth opportunities in their TV rights from elsewhere.

European super league? That would be the one we haven’t been talking about…

Which brings me neatly on to one of the “newsiest” elements to arise out of the Leaders Sport Summit last week. This was the claim from Galatasaray’s chairman, Ünsal Aysal, that a closed European super league is five years away.

It was an idea also entertained philosophically by the Juventus chairman, Andrea Agnelli, as “the best model”, although he later denied it would happen. Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Michele Centenaro, the two most senior officials at the European Clubs Association, also denied it.

Agnelli speaks impeccable English. He is a highly impressive individual endowed with a formidable intellect and, as the fourth Agnelli to run Juve, has a seasoned perspective on the game.

So, faced with his denial that a closed European league he considers the best model could happen, I looked Agnelli in the eye to ask if any ECA clubs had ever discussed it as a possibility, even over a cup of tea. Uncharacteristically, he gave a bit of a stuttering response.

“I have been part of the ECA since September 2012 and no, since, in in [sic] the 13 months of which I’ve been part of the ECA, not even a, a, [sic] with a cup of tea or a pint of beer, or the fifth pint of beer,” he said, looking down at the table and blinking repeatedly before looking away and then, finally, back at me.

Now I do not know him at all and I am no expert in body language. But I’m afraid I was not convinced.

Journalist and broadcaster Matt Scott wrote the Digger column for The Guardian newspaper for five years and is now a columnist for Insideworldfootball. Contact him moc.l1563499261labto1563499261ofdlr1563499261owedi1563499261sni@t1563499261tocs.1563499261ttamt1563499261a1563499261.