Beckham TV blackout

July 8, 2003
By Phil Holland

It's a dream come true for the player, as well as for fans of spectacle football and of course the cash-crazed marketing men.

David Beckham, the world's most marketable footballer in the famous white shirt of Real Madrid, the latest addition to arguably the most star-studded team ever assembled: mouth-watering stuff.

The potential global television audience for Beckham's first appearance for the reigning Spanish champions is enormous, possibly even record-breaking.

When one considers that a worldwide television audience of 2 billion tuned in to see club president Florentino Perez unveil Beckham as 'one of the greatest English footballers of all time' the mind boggles as to what his first La Liga game could attract.

For those interested in such things, Beckham's unveiling is understood to have been the second highest audience figure for a live event, eclipsed only by the 2.5 billion across the world who watched Princess Diana's funeral in 1997.

But Spain, and the rest of the world, could have to wait for the England captain's first La Liga outing for his new team because of a long and increasingly bitter row over television rights which is threatening to delay the start of the new season.

Unbelievably, the start of the forthcoming Spanish league season is in real danger as a result of arguments between clubs, broadcasters and the Liga de Futbol Profesional over the value of television rights, with broadcasters refusing to pay the league's asking price.

The row began when Spanish television consortium Audiovisual Sport offered the LFP Euro270million a season for the rights to both the country's top two divisions, well short of the Euros350million the league had been seeking.

With last season marking the end of the previous television deal the Spanish game has now found itself in a state of turmoil.

So contentious is the long-running stalemate that it has split the country's 42 professional clubs and led to the creation of two factions.

The G-30 group comprises the 22 Segunda division clubs and eight of the top division's smaller clubs, while the G-12 group, comprises the Primera league's giant clubs including Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid.

The G-30 clubs are anxious to maximize the amount of money they can get for their television rights by pooling them together and selling them collectively.

However, the G-12 clubs are adamant that they can get more money by signing individual broadcast deals. They also want a revamp of La Liga's administration along similar lines to England's Premier League.

The LFP is so concerned that clubs could collapse if they are forced to start the season without television rights deals in place that it has voted to suspend the start of the new season.

Earlier this year, the LFP underlined the financial state of many clubs when it estimated that their debts could soon be in excess of Euros2billion and asked the government to help alleviate the clubs' worries.

While in May Gerardo Gonzalez, president of the Spanish soccer players' union, warned that mounting debts, unpaid salaries and the absence of a new television deal was threatening the very future of the Spanish game.

'There are clear signs that Spanish football is in a state of collapse,' warned Gonzalez.

Frustrated with the LFP's actions the G-12 group has appealed against the decision to delay the new season's scheduled August 31 start, pointing out that several of its number have already secured lucrative agreements.

GettyImages / CarlosAlvarezBeckham: La Liga debut delay?

Atletico Madrid has sealed a three-year domestic and international television rights deal with Audiovisual Sport, netting itself Euros16million per season.

Valencia has negotiated a three-year worth Euros73million deal with a regional free-to-air broadcaster, Radio Televisao Valenciana, while Deportivo La Coruna has also got itself a three-year deal with pay-television operator Sogecable worth an estimated Euros21million a season, while Espanyol has also agreed a deal.

Both Real Madrid and Barcelona have five-year, Euros78million-a-season deals beginning next season with pay-television operators Sogecable and Telefonica respectively.

Sogecable and Telefonica are in the final stage of a merger with the new platform due to be launched at the end of the month.

As unthinkable as a delayed start to the season at first seems it is not without precedent.

This time last year Italy's Serie A was in the midst of a not dissimilar row over TV rights which resulted in a two week delay to the campaign.

The most important deal for the G-30 clubs is for the sale of their rights inside Spain. While international interest in La Liga is at an all time high, the big money deals are still generated from the domestic market.

For the smaller clubs the fact that Real Madrid, Barcelona et al are quite content to go it alone is a big blow as it greatly devalues their product, reduces their bargaining power and therefore the amount of money they can attract.

The LFP has agreed an international deal for the G-30 clubs with Phedra Sports, a Barcelona based sport rights agency, but this is small beer in comparison to the value of a domestic deal and alone an international deal will not convince the authorities to back down on the delay.

Last month the row was such that La Liga clubs threatened a breakaway from the LFP.

The G-12 group reportedly approached the top-flight's eight other clubs about the possibility of forming a breakaway league in order to conduct their own television deals, free from the pressure of the LFP and the 22 second division clubs.

Whether this will come to fruition will depend on the eight smaller La Liga clubs' commitment to G-30 and how confident they are of maintaining their top flight status in the future.

G-12 could broker a lucrative deal for a 20-club breakaway, but the problem for the small clubs would come if they were relegated to what is now the Segunda division.

The drop in revenues between a possible breakaway division and the structure below could mean bumper short term income, but relegation could prove catastrophic.

There remains time for the clubs and the LFP to reach a compromise which will allow the new season to kick off on time and as planned.

But as long as the majority of Spanish clubs are without domestic deals, international agreements cannot be finalised and the much anticipated start to the 2003-04 season, and of course one David Beckham's debut, will just have to wait.

1Euro = US$1.13
1Euro = £0.69


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