Real Madrid and Barcelona renew their 85-year-old rivalry on Saturday in a match that will captivate a massive global audience and contain more glamor than ever before. Yet the consequences and means of Spain’s "Big Two" assembling such an unparalleled collection of soccer talent continue to be a source of concern.
It is a contest that has long enthralled for its reach far beyond the pitch, encapsulating as it does the historic deep divisions between the Spanish capital and the heart of Catalonia. But the major reason why an estimated global audience of 400 million is expected to tune into El Clasico on Saturday is to witness an unparalleled concentration of talent on one pitch, the quality and expense of which is testament to the huge financial supremacy the two clubs have established over their Spanish rivals. Now even the two club’s reaping the awards realize such dominance is not sustainable.
Real Madrid and Barcelona are the two most valuable sports teams on the planet, worth $3.44 billion and $3.2 billion, respectively. Such wealth means it is hardly surprising that their meeting this weekend will for the first time feature more than €1 billion($1.27 billion) worth of players facing off -- and that without the injured most expensive player of all time Gareth Bale. The sparkling collection is, of course, led by the two undisputed greatest players of this generation: Barcelona’s twinkle-toed genius Lionel Messi and Real Madrid’s sculpted goal-scoring machine Cristiano Ronaldo.
The two goliaths have been allowed to capitalize on their huge support thanks to the ability of Spanish clubs to negotiate their own television contracts. Barcelona and Real Madrid currently earn around €140 million ($177 million) each from their media deals, about 35 percent of the total for Spain’s top 42 clubs and 6.5 times what the smallest clubs make. In contrast, last season the English Premier League’s top earning team from broadcast revenue, Liverpool, took in €123 million, 1.57 times what bottom club Cardiff City received.
Yet even La Liga’s current imbalance is a significant improvement on just a few years ago when the ratio between the top two and the smallest clubs was 13:1. Catherine Davies, a research editor at Sportcal Sports Market Intelligence and an expert on La Liga media rights, explained that the shift occurred in 2010 when everyone agreed that something had to change.
"The two big clubs understand that the huge imbalance is not sustainable,” she said via email. "Both big clubs are willing and eager to re-dress the balance -- provided that their overall amount earned from media rights does not go down."
The priority is on increasing La Liga’s overall broadcasting revenue and thus eating up some of the massive advantage currently held in global media rights by the Premier League. In that task it finds itself caught in something of a "chicken and an egg" scenario, with the Premier League’s greater competitiveness being one of its major selling points.
La Liga remains some way off in that regard. One only has to look of the events of this summer, though, to see the reality that Atlético Madrid’s remarkable ending of a nine-year title streak for Spain’s two beheamoths is currently more of an anomaly than a major shift in the pecking order. Despite their success, Atlético were compelled to sell their top goalscorer, formidable goalkeeper and a leading defender. Meanwhile, across the city Real Madrid were spending €110 million ($140 million) on the star of the 2014 World Cup, James Rodríguez and a key member of Germany’s triumphant team, Toni Kroos. At Barcelona, the joint top scorer in Europe last season, Luis Suárez -- set to make his debut on Saturday after his four-month biting ban -- was signing on the dotted line for €81 million ($83 million). They are the only two clubs in Spain, and perhaps the world, which don’t have to worry about losing their best players and can instead have their pick of talent from every other team.
According to Dr. Tim Ströbel, a visiting professor at Ohio University from Universität Bayreuth in Germany, believes such a duopoly is not necessarily detrimental to the competition as a whole.
“A league doesn’t have to be completely balanced,” he said. “When you think from a customer and fan perspective, I think many fans are also interested in local rivalries. They are not only competing against the big clubs. It can still be very interesting although there are only one or two teams dominating.”
While complete balance is now completely unrealistic, La Liga is making strides toward their goal, according to Davies, of reducing the disparity in media rights between Barcelona and Real Madrid and the smallest La Liga club to 3:1 in the next two negotiation cycles. As well as hosting more events around the globe, the league has started scheduling matches at noon local time, far earlier than is traditional to try and capture more of the Asian market. Even the 6 p.m. start time for Saturday’s Clasico has the international market in mind, says Davies.
With the current state of play, the Premier League clubs could afford to spend more than double their Spanish counterparts during the recent summer transfer window. While Barcelona and Real Madrid can outspend the biggest clubs in England, the reverse is demonstrably true for the leagues as a whole. La Liga has thus far traded off some of its competitive balance for luring global superstars to its shores. It is a strategy that has its advantages.
“The international top players can come to your league [when you have clubs like Barcelona and Real Madrid],” Ströbel said. “The more international top players you can get, the more international top sponsors you can get, and the more international media coverage you can get.”
For the rest of Spain’s clubs, which have been far from immune to the country’s economic crisis and can’t hope to secure global superstars, the situation remains very different. Clubs in Spain’s top two leagues are in debt to a tune of €3.6 billion ($4.6 billion) and owe the government a combined €663 million ($840 million) in taxes. Atletico conjured up an incredible fairytale on the pitch last season, but off it the club remains far from a beacon of sustainable success. Indeed, they still have a large chunk of an enormous €171 million ($217 million) tax bill to pay off.
Such financial hardships help explain why the Spanish government is intent on enacting legislation requiring La Liga’s broadcasting rights to be sold collectively.
“It is a move to increase the overall earnings of La Liga as a whole,” Davies said. “Nearly all the clubs believe that this can be done if their media rights are sold collectively. And this is what is being enacted by the government.”
It may be hard at first glance to understand why Barcelona and Real Madrid are committed to helping correct the disparity. But they will be aware of the dangers of playing in a league that offers little competition other than head-to-head meetings twice a year.
Last season in Germany, Bayern Munich won the German Bundesliga at a record early stage, but then capitulated in their efforts to retain the Champions League. Perhaps the same issue has hampered the ability of Real Madrid and Barcelona when going on the European stage. Given their financial advantage, one might have the duo to have dominated in Europe even more than they have done in recent years. Certainly the talent that will be on display on Saturday suggests they will take some stopping both at home and abroad in the foreseeable future.
Real Madrid host Barcelona this Saturday looking to close a four-point gap to the league-leading visitors.
Kickoff time: Noon EDT
TV channel: BeIN Sports
Live stream: BeIN Sports Connect