From top to bottom, Spanish soccer has been rocked by a series of challenges over the last 18 months. From club financial woes to European Super League (ESL) chaos, LaLiga, the organising body for Spain’s top two divisions, has had to navigate its way through troubled waters.
A recent study by professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) found that teams in the top-flight LaLiga and second-tier Segunda Division missed out on over €2 billion (US$2.3 billion) in income over the last two seasons as they were struck by significant revenue losses during the Covid-19 pandemic. LaLiga also reported in June that the net debt of Spanish soccer clubs has climbed by €746 million (US$869 million), although cash-strapped FC Barcelona were responsible for a significant portion of the increase.
Offering a way to help clubs with their financial recovery, LaLiga has signed an initial €2.7 billion (US$3.2 billion) investment deal with Luxembourg-headquartered private equity firm CVC. In return, CVC will receive a ten per cent stake in a new company comprising all of LaLiga’s businesses, subsidiaries and joint ventures, as well as an 11 per cent share of the league’s future media rights revenues over the next 50 years.
When asked about the implications of the CVC deal during a media roundtable at Sportel Monaco, LaLiga president Javier Tebas hailed the investment as being “very positive” for the league.
“The money that goes into LaLiga doesn’t go to players. It goes into investing into clubs to grow competition,” he explains. “We’re going to raise our value, and this is what we’re creating, so the league raises in value.
“And for us, it is so important. If we don’t do [it with] CVC, I’m convinced that we will lose value in the next decade. On the other hand, doing it with CVC, in the next ten years we can grow 30 per cent.”
Tebas is confident that the CVC partnership, which has been christened ‘Boost LaLiga’, will provide economic stability and further opportunities for Spanish soccer clubs to grow going forward. He refers to the arrangement as “a capital deal” rather than a financial one, highlighting that the two are “very different”.
While 90 per cent of CVC’s investment will go directly to the clubs, 70 per cent of the funding the teams are set to receive is reserved specifically for infrastructure and technological developments. A further 15 per cent can be spent on registering players, with another 15 per cent available for addressing financial debts.
Tebas says that CVC’s backing will enable clubs to make investments that they would not otherwise have been able to finance with their own funds. Expanding on where CVC’s funding will have a significant impact, he lists off a number of key areas in which clubs will benefit from the deal, including digitalisation, investment in youth academies and stadium improvements.
“These investments the clubs are doing are going to raise our value,” Tebas reiterates. “In the first instance, just on digitalising, the premier teams have a good advantage. That’s why we need to start creating this digitalisation from the origin. There are stadiums that need to improve and, as it is, if we don’t inject money, the clubs with [less income] cannot do it.”
CVC’s investment has not been welcomed by all Spanish clubs, however. Namely, El Clasico rivals Real Madrid and Barcelona have been united in their opposition to the deal, with the former even threatening to pursue legal action against LaLiga.
It is also not the first time this year that LaLiga has found itself going down a different path to its two biggest clubs. In April, both teams were among 12 founding members of the breakaway ESL, which has since been abandoned by all but Barcelona, Real Madrid and Juventus. Florentino Perez, the president of Real Madrid, was one of the driving forces behind the project, and stated in June that “the Super League continues” despite its apparent collapse.
The better LaLiga does, the project they’re believing in – the Super League – has less possibility, if it has any at all.
While Tebas was unsurprised by Real Madrid’s opposition to the CVC investment, he admits to being left slightly perplexed by Barcelona’s stance. The Catalan giants have accumulated debt of around €1.35 billion (US$1.57 billion), reporting earlier this month that they suffered losses of €481 million (US$560 million) during the 2020/21 financial year, citing the pandemic as the primary cause.
The CVC funding would have reportedly allowed Barcelona to cling onto their most decorated player, six-time Ballon d’Or winner Lionel Messi, who departed the club for Paris Saint-German this summer due to the club’s inability to re-sign him under LaLiga’s strict salary rules.
“Real Madrid I understand, because they are doing very well financially,” Tebas says. “But we’re growing the value of the competition. Barcelona I don’t understand so much.
“The two clubs are in opposition fundamentally, they are still in the belief of the Super League. The better LaLiga does, the project they’re believing in – the Super League – has less possibility, if it has any at all.
“They don’t want a stronger LaLiga, a bigger LaLiga, because the bigger LaLiga is, the more they will depend on LaLiga economically, the less possibilities they have [for a Super League]. That’s the key of it.”
Despite the opposition from Real Madrid and Barcelona, LaLiga was still able to push through the CVC deal by giving clubs the opportunity to opt out of the deal. Without the involvement of the aforementioned clubs and Athletic Bilbao, who also voted against the proposal, Tebas has said CVC will invest a sum now more likely to be between €2.1 billion (US$2.5 billion) and €2.2 billion (US$2.6 billion).
Still, though, he expects the remaining 39 clubs that have signed up to the agreement to greatly benefit from the investment.
“39 clubs of 42, they are doing well, they’re not idiots,” he adds.
There can’t be a Super League without the six main British clubs, and there we must thank England.
Commenting on the continued fallout from the ESL, Tebas confirms that LaLiga has the capacity to “go against all judicial movements”, which it is currently doing, while noting that the Spanish government “is also going to oppose itself to the Super League” in Spanish judicial courts.
For now at least, with plans for a Super League seemingly dead in the water, Tebas acknowledges the role the six English clubs initially involved in the breakaway project played in preventing the ESL from materialising by being among the first teams to pull out.
“As for the moment, while the UK is outside of the Super League, the Super League does not have a future,” he says. “There can’t be a Super League without the six main British clubs, and there we must thank England.”
With the CVC deal now in place and fears of a Super League allayed for the time being, Tebas will be switching his focus to LaLiga’s next domestic media rights deal, with the league’s current agreements with telecommunications company Telefonica and the Mediapro agency expiring after the 2021/22 season. The upcoming tender will give the Spanish soccer body the option to sign four or five-year deals for the first time after changes were made last year to the Royal Decree, which governs the sale of centralised rights in Spain, scrapping a law that limited contracts to three years.
The roundtable with Tebas in Monaco covered that domestic media rights sales process and a number of other major projects bubbling away in the background, including the newly launched LaLiga Tech subsidiary and LaLiga Pass, a planned international over-the-top (OTT) subscription service.
“The three-year contracts have shown that in Spain and in all of Europe, instead of raising competition, it’s reducing it, because no new broadcasters are getting in the game just for three years. They have very little time to make a return on an investment. Therefore, if we study what has happened in Europe, each broadcaster that has bid for three years has bid for a subsequent three years.
“By going to four or five years, we are going to create more competition. We would like to break the current model in Spain, because we have a distribution problem. Telefonica has obligations because of competition that when they buy football their sublicensing prices are regulated.
“So football isn’t reaching all the users be it paid television or OTT. In Spain there are more than four million paid TV users, who even though they are paying, still cannot watch the football. There are 12 to 13 million OTT users, that even when they pay cannot watch the football. And that it keep going like this.
“The way audiovisual markets are today in Spain, we would like to match [the value of the current contracts]. The market isn’t there to raise more than that.”
“So, first of all, it’s very important, the partnership we have with ESPN. There is no doubt that ESPN is at the top of sports media internationally. Secondly, the duration of our agreement is very important for us, because it gives us stability, and a valuable stability over eight years in the United States.
“Thirdly, it is going to shine a lot more light on our clubs, and it’s going to give us a lot of investment, because ESPN is also going to invest a lot of money into LaLiga.”
“Our LaLiga Pass project is already existing. We’ve been working on it for over four years. We are going to market in three months, but we are not hitting every market simultaneously.
“We’re going to the markets where we believe it’s going to be an advantage for the broadcasters at this moment in time. We’ve already suggested it in India, with broadcasters there, and Thailand. But it’s very dependent on location, because the product in each location is very different. It depends on what the broadcaster requires and what we think we can bring to the table.
“Moreover, it’s not going to be direct broadcasting of the games, unless the broadcaster wishes. But of course, the broadcaster will have to charge that money, not us. For LaLiga Pass, the objective is to generate an excellent experience for what they call ‘heavy users’. If you know the NBA [League] Pass, it’s similar, and the NBA [League] Pass is different in each location, in each country.”
“I’m very happy, because all the work we’ve put in for years, and moreover that is already functioning within LaLiga, we can put it to the service of the sporting world and it can mean revenue for us.
“The market will tell, there’s competition as well, but what is very necessary for the sports industry is that everybody digitalises in a correct fashion. And LaLiga Tech shows with a global system – OTT, anti-piracy, a digital ecosystem – it’s very important for growth of the competition. Those that haven’t purchased [those services] or don’t have it made will suffer in the coming years.”