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New TV deal ensures status quo

The banner could not have been more eloquent. Nor, in a curious sort of way, could the reaction of the fans at the end of the game. Barcelona was in town last Saturday and the Deportivo de La Coruña supporters had prepared their message carefully. Huge letters spelled it out: "We don't want a Scottish league." But by the final whistle it appeared they had accepted the inevitable. Deportivo had been beaten 4-0 by Barcelona, but there was no anger, no recrimination and few empty seats, vacated by the disgusted and depressed, determined not to see out the defeat. Instead, there was applause.

That applause spoke well of Deportivo's fans, of their support for the team, of the communion between the stands and the pitch -- and fans recently turned up at the club's training ground to offer their struggling coach and players their backing rather than demand their sacking -- but it was also a little troubling. Not only had the attendance grown to watch Barcelona, the applause said something. Something like: there's no shame in losing 4-0 to Barcelona, everyone does that these days. That's just the way it is.

League games are like Cup matches between a first division side and some team from a handful of divisions below. You might get lucky and up to a point you live in hope but you simply can't compete with Barcelona and Madrid. Those Deportivo de La Coruña fans don't want a league entirely dominated by two clubs, where the rest have literally no hope of winning the title and where they have become entirely irrelevant; one where, as a corollary of that, even the big two's standards might slip. But is it too late? Don't want a Scottish league? Many fear that Spain already has one.

La Liga is far, far better than the SPL -- not just because you can't compare Madrid and Barcelona with Celtic and Rangers but because there are other good sides too. But the disparity between the two biggest teams and the rest, analyzed on these pages last week, is concerning; for the rest, economic viability is a pipe dream, competing impossible. Just ask Sevilla's sporting director. "This reminds me more and more of Scotland," said Monchi. The former Real Zaragoza president described Spain's league as the "dullest on earth." The question now is how do you change that? It is a question that occupies the league and its clubs. And at the heart of it are television rights.

TV rights alone do not account for the differences between clubs in Spain. But -- as this column discussed last week -- they make a huge difference. They are the single most important factor, allowing two clubs to operate on annual budgets at least four times bigger than any other team in the division. They are, says the vice-president of one of the Spanish First Division's biggest clubs beyond the big two, "the key to absolutely everything." Many have become aware of that. There has been a push toward a collective deal for TV rights, rather than allowing clubs to negotiate one by one.

Recently, a collective deal was presented by 18 of the 20 clubs in the Spanish First Division. The deal resolved one really important issue. For the first time, the Spanish league will offer a "parachute payment" to protect teams that are relegated: the sudden drop into the second division -- and the TV drop that goes with it, from at least €12 million ($16 million) to at most €2 million ($2.6 million) a year in income -- has seen all too many clubs, still obliged to pay First Division wages, plunged into administration and financial crisis. Money will now be set aside to protect those who are relegated and prevent financial crisis.

But if it resolved one issue, it did not break up the duopoly. It could not. A collective deal might be more manageable, it might make the overall income higher (and that is one of the ways that Madrid and Barcelona were persuaded to lend their support), but it does not make all teams equal. Collective bargaining does not mean collective earning. As part of the proposed deal, 45 percent of the money will be shared among 16 clubs, with the final amount depending on number of Pay Per View hits, league position and a series of other variables. That left four clubs. Valencia and Atlético Madrid, the country's third and fourth most popular clubs, would receive 11 percent of the total, while Madrid and Barcelona would take 35 percent of the total between them.

In other words, the inequality would be enshrined. The turkeys had voted for Christmas. Only they hadn't, not really: the bulk of Spain's teams had signed their own death warrant -- but they had done it to ensure their survival. They had signed away their chances of success but prevented their destruction. They no longer aspired to be the best; but they did aspire to stay in business. They had agreed, if a little reluctantly, to the status quo. They had laid bare their aspirations: to play in the league, but not to play for the league. Ever again.

Editor's note: This is Part 2 of a three-part look at the competitiveness of Spain's La Liga. Part 3 will be on Monday.

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