‘Adios’ to free La Liga live TV games?

With the end of the La Liga season almost upon us, fans in Spain could be enjoying the last few live games to be screened free on terrestrial television.

The TV networks are undergoing a difficult time financially along with the rest of the country, where the unemployment rate reached 22.8 per cent at the end of last year, and despite a succession of mergers the economic crisis has hit television companies hard with spending cuts inevitable, particularly in regard to sport. Consequently, the uncertain outlook makes the €50m asked by Barcelona-based multimedia communications group Mediapro (who control the TV rights to Spanish football) for the screening of live matches on free-to-air television appear improbable.

Expansion.com maintains that Antena 3, who have taken over the La Sexta channel, and Mediaset, owners of Telecinco and Cuatro, are the only candidates willing to tender bids when the right to screen free live games is up for grabs in June. Even so, both have said they are unwilling to pay the price demanded by Mediapro and will only enter into negotiations if the figure falls to around €30m.

At present the rights to show football ‘en abierto’ (or on open TV) are owned by La Sexta, who last year paid €60m for the broadcasting rights, working out at around €1.6m for each of the 36 games shown on a Saturday night. Now under the Antena 3 banner, the company’s chief executive Silvio Gonzalez summed up why sports broadcasting is not as lucrative in the current climate.

“The problem with sports is that they are good for ratings but from a financial viewpoint they are a disaster. They are beyond any measure of profitability,” claimed Gonzalez, who cited Telecinco’s decision to pull out of screening Formula 1 in 2008 as an example, even though one year previously the station had pulled in an average of eight million viewers per race. Four years down the line, with the networks’ coffers damaged by the monetary crisis, the transmission of sports such as football and Formula 1 is not as feasible if operating profits are to be ensured.

Although the televising of motor racing was guaranteed this year thanks to Antena 3 – who acquired the rights to Formula 1 after absorbing La Sexta – in the case of football the fans may not be quite so lucky. In 1997 Spain approved a law guaranteeing the screening of one live game per round of fixtures on an open channel, with this regulation remaining in place after the Audiovisual Communication Act was passed in 2010. However, the Spanish League (LFP) is against this act and considers these games significantly reduce the value of other matches screened on pay-per-view television.

The difficulties faced by broadcasters are not the only threat to supporters wanting to watch a free game ‘en directo’ (live), with the government hoping to shortly approve a bill to create a national commission that will decide which sporting events are considered of ‘general interest’ and should therefore be available to everyone .

All this uncertainty means the summer could be spent re-enacting the so-called ‘guerra de futbol’ (football war) of a year ago when Mediapro and Prisa TV were battling it out for the rights to transmit La Liga fixtures, a situation that could create the perfect opportunity for the Qatari-owned Al Jazeera network to gain a foothold in the Spanish market.

The channel is looking to expand its interests in Europe on the way to becoming the world’s premier global broadcaster and James M. Dorsey, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and an expert on Middle East football, believes this would reaffirm Al Jazeera’s strategy of joining other Qatari institutions in concluding sponsorship deals and other acquisitions before the country hosts the 2022 World Cup. Dorsey says Al Jazeera has spent an estimated $400 million in the last year to obtain broadcasting rights to the French league, the Champions League and Europa League, as well as some top German and Italian matches.

Nonetheless, an added complication at the moment would be that each Spanish club sells its own rights, strengthening the position of the big teams such as Barcelona and Real Madrid, yet there is real worry some will struggle to respect players’ contracts if matters are not resolved to everybody’s satisfaction.

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