When reports began to emerge from Spain at the beginning of February that the government was planning to impose the collective selling of media rights on professional football, it was easy to glaze over and dismiss the story. How many times in the last couple of years have we read similar stories? How many times have we heard presidents of smaller Spanish clubs – that means everybody that isn’t either FC Barcelona or Real Madrid – warn that individual selling, and the rich man-poor man culture it creates, would eventually kill the Primera Division?
The immediate response is the flip, cynical one: it will never happen. It’s easy to list the reasons. Barça and Real are too powerful and have too much political influence. Between them, they provide too many voters for politicians to alienate. The big two clubs are too canny – they will know just how much leeway to give on sharing income from TV rights to buy off the clubs of the grumbling mid-rank presidents. Spain is not like England or Germany. It’s a Latin country that operates on a different mindset – don’t try to understand it or compare it with other markets.
Of course there is some truth in all of this. But I’ve heard this all before, and quite recently too. And in another ‘Latin’ country – Italy, my adopted homeland.
In 2006, Romano Prodi’s newly elected centre-left government promised a profound shake-up of Italian football in the wake of the Calciopoli match-fixing scandal. One of the key planks of reform was to re-impose the collective selling of media rights on Serie A clubs. Many observers of Italian football – me included – took the flip, cynical view: it will never happen. It was easy to list the reasons.
The three clubs who benefited most from individual selling – Juventus, Inter Milan and AC Milan – would never allow it to happen. They were powerful institutions and provided too many voters to alienate. And you want political influence? How about being owned by Silvio Berlusconi, the country’s richest man and most powerful politician, as AC Milan is? Or being owned by the Agnelli family, the owner of Fiat motors, and country’s foremost industrial dynasty, as Juventus is?
What happened in Italy reminds us that football, for all its power and mystique, is not above the law and the machinations of wealthy tycoons will not always be enough to prevent change. Because in a democracy, there are really only two questions that matter: (1) does the government have a working majority in parliament? and (2) does it have the political will to change things?
Prodi’s government, a piebald coalition held together with sellotape, had the flimsiest of majorities but the two ministers who authored the collective selling bill – Sport and Culture Minister Giovanna Melandri and Media and Telecommunications Minister Paolo Gentiloni – were absolutely determined to get the bill onto the statute books.
In their painstaking negotiations with Serie A clubs between 2006 and 2008, when the law was finally passed, the pair had a negotiating advantage that Spanish politicians probably lack: a groundswell of public opinion. The scale of popular revulsion at the extent of attempts to nobble match officials in the Calciopoli affair, and the resulting popular view that those running the game had lost their moral compass, considerably undermined the chances of the ‘Big Three’ whipping up opposition to the reform. Two of the big three clubs, Juventus and Milan, would be punished for their role in the match-fixing scandal.
But perhaps the Spanish government doesn’t need such a cataclysm to force through reform or to engage popular opinion. It merely needs to be convinced that a league in which only two clubs have a reasonable chance of winning for the foreseeable future is not a healthy, vibrant sporting or economic activity. While Real and Barça fly the flag for Spain in the UEFA Champions League, the domestic league – as a sporting competition – withers on the vine.
This season Real and Barça will each earn Eur130 million for their television rights to Primera Division matches. The clubs finishing at the bottom will earn just over Eur20 million. The 6.5:1 ratio of earnings is by some distance the widest in the big European football leagues. That of the English Premier League, by comparison, is 1.55:1.
Spain’s Big Two will be working hard behind the scenes with proposals of solidarity payments to smaller clubs to head off this reform. But if they have enough business sense they will also be planning for the day when collective selling comes in and restores some kind of economic equilibrium to the Primera Division.
Because if the political will is there, this will happen.
This is a personal perspective of Frank Dunne, editor of TV Sports Markets.