The implications of the fight against football commercialism in Spain

Spanish football finds itself at the forefront of the modern battle between money and sentiment in football. With the league hell-bent on staging one of its games in Miami, the fans, the federation, and a few clubs are fighting back. The outcome could set a precedent for the game at the global level. 

The story has been at the top of the Spanish sport press’ collective mind for a couple of weeks now. Javier Tebas, president of the Spanish League (LaLiga), signed an agreement with Relevent, the American company that organises the International Champions Cup. The agreement contemplates various parameters of cooperation to bring the LaLiga brand stateside for a period of fifteen years. That all sounds nice and profitable.

But the agreement also establishes that at least one LaLiga game be played in the United States each season. As leagues across Europe scramble to find more revenue streams in the face of the Premier League’s overwhelming advantage in terms of television rights, this move has brought a very polarised fight with it.

Sneaky Tebas

The impasse began with the announcement of the deal. Tebas and his LaLiga entourage made it public in mid-August. Predictably, they argued that the US market is ripe for such endeavours. Because of this, they said, taking one LaLiga game to an American stadium is “vital” to the league’s expansion strategy. The announcement indeed included many marketing clichés, ranging from describing the agreement as a “turning point in football”, to “the next big step in bringing football to America”.

However, Tebas failed to discuss the agreement with the Federation beforehand. He also went behind the backs of the clubs and the fans (more on that later). As a result, the backlash was as immediate as it was ruthless. The players’ union summoned a meeting in Madrid, which yielded an irate press statement. The union threatened to take its rejection of the agreement to the highest instances and refused to take a strike off the table.

The Federation also expressed its concern. Chairman Luis Rubiales referred to the Spanish Law of Sport to argue that LaLiga failed to clear the agreement with all the concerned parties. Despite Tebas near-sighted counterargument that the Spanish Supercup was played in Morocco, Rubiales stood firm in playing down the possibility of having Barcelona and Girona play in Miami.

Lies

The latest development came with Real Madrid’s leaked letter to LaLiga and the Federation. In it, the club opposed the Miami game. José Ángel Sánchez, the Karl-Heinz Rummenigge of Madrid, said that playing a game in a neutral stadium, away from Spain, compromises the competition. Sánchez also pointed out that the Real Madrid fan clubs had initially supported the initiative because LaLiga told them the club was likewise supportive. Once Real Madrid contacted these fan clubs and appraised them of their actual stance, they withdrew their support.

In short, LaLiga was far from transparent in this whole thing. As a result, they are facing much opposition. Both Barcelona and Girona have gotten on board with playing in Miami. However, the jury is still out on whether they will.

All in all, Tebas pulled off a sneaky move in which he either failed to inform or outright lied to the parties concerned. He neglected to consider what Spanish law stipulates about domestic competitions. Essentially, he pulled the trigger first and is now asking questions – or rather answering them. That, in and of itself, is wrong. But there is a bigger picture about what this means for the world of football at large.

To sell or not to sell

Taking domestic games abroad is nothing new. The Americans themselves have been doing it for more than a decade. The Italians are already accustomed to playing the Supercoppa Italiana in Qatar or Saudi Arabia, having first taken it abroad in 1993. Indeed, the Spanish have already dipped their toes in this most dubious of waters. The RFEF staged its own Supercup in Morocco this year. This involved a change in format; the Spanish Supercup has traditionally been played over two legs. There was a mild scandal when Sevilla said that they were not informed or consulted in making the decision to play a single leg in Tanger. But play in Morocco they did.

The guiding principle is basically to increase revenue by opening up to emerging markets. That revenue stream comes from short-term things like merchandise sales and the actual ticketing. It also builds up audiences and fans in these markets, making more lucrative television deals easier to negotiate. No league is alien to seeking increased revenues. It’s the strategies that differ.

Precedents of failure

Back in 2008, the Premier League proposed what is now the infamous ’39th game’. Richard Scudamore, chairman of the league, proposed that all 20 sides play one game abroad in January. Instead of taking one of the regularly scheduled games, Scudamore presented the idea for an extra round. This would ensure that no team was robbed of a home game, thus, in theory, preserving the integrity of the competition. Scudamore stressed that this would also ensure that fans were maligned.

Even with these concessions and a format meant to be as least traumatic as possible, the 39th game failed. Sepp Blatter, then FIFA president, strongly opposed it. He saw it as a money grab, which it was. Many Premier League managers, including Sir Alex Ferguson and Roy Hodgson, also voiced their dislike. Fans also derided Scudmore and the league.

What makes this precedent really baffling is not how it failed spectacularly. Rather, it is the fact that Tebas’ proposal is significantly more hostile to fans, and yet he expected it to be lauded and accepted almost without question.

Where do we draw the line?

Indeed, this whole issue arrives at this question. How much commercialisation is too much? People like Tebas see the disadvantage other European leagues have with respect to the English and think that the ends justify the means. His mindset is that of someone concerned exclusively with money. That much became evident when he said that as compensation for losing a home game against Barcelona, Girona fans could receive discounted travel packages to attend the game, or a partial refund of their season tickets. This shows a crucial misunderstanding of what football means to a person who goes to the trouble of actually buying a season ticket.

When Scudmore proposed the 39th game, the main complaint of fans was that they would be unable to attend an away game. Many diehard fans take pride in following their team wherever they go. Taking domestic competition across borders makes that more difficult. It is tantamount to cutting football from its roots. No amount of money compensates for that.

Then, there is the very valid concern expressed by Real Madrid. The league format is inherently altered by the proposal and that does lend itself to questions about the integrity of the competition. Tebas is very clearly okay with throwing that overboard if it means more revenue now and later. And that blind willingness needs to be checked and controverted.

The beginning of a wave?

The most serious implication here is that this will probably continue. After the Premier League’s false start, Tebas has been insistent. He continues to exhibit an optimistic rapport with the press, always saying that he is very much certain that Barcelona and Girona will play in Miami.

Unless Tebas suffers a precipitous defeat in his quest to cross the line into overcommercialisation, this will only be an incentive. Luckily, DFL officials have said that they will not take the Bundesliga outside of Germany. But when these suits are gone, new suits can come in and sing a different song. And even if they don’t, the French and the Italians could easily follow Spain’s lead.

I don’t need to outline why this is such a bad idea. Anyone with half a sense of what football means to people knows why. There is a limit, and it’s not like these people are struggling to make a living here. Football is already a hugely profitable business for most everyone involved.

So pray to God, or whatever you believe in, that Javier Tebas has to walk back to Madrid with his tail between his legs.