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Independent thinking | The business of sport in an autonomous Catalonia

  • Catalan economy worth 19% of Spanish GDP
  • Catalan sports minister says FC Barcelona could switch to Ligue 1, Serie A or the EPL
  • La Liga president Javier Tebas pours cold water on the suggestion

When the Catalonian government banned bullfighting in 2012, they claimed it was a victory for animal rights. That was just part of the story, however. The main reason for outlawing this centuries-old sport and quintessential emblem of Spanish cultural identity was a political one. Catalonia nationalists are trying to distance themselves from everything that’s Spanish.

Five years on, the nationalists’ struggle for independence is at full throttle and bullfighting is the least of the Catalans' sporting worries. Even if this combat sport does contribute €1.6bn to the Spanish economy, and directly employs 57,000 people – as the National Association of Bullfighting Event Organisers (ANOET) boldly claims – football is of much greater concern for the regional economy. And as everyone knows, in Catalonia, football means FC Barcelona.

Barça is a cornerstone of Catalonia's economy. According to Forbes, FC Barcelona is worth $3.64bn in 2017, up two per cent on last year. For the 2015-2016 season, (the latest figures available) the club generated $640m in match day income (gate receipts and corporate hospitality), $1.06bn from broadcasting and $1.38bn in commercial income.

Compared to the other Spanish regions, Catalonia’s economy is fighting fit, representing 19 per cent of the nation’s GDP, just more than that of the Madrid region.

What would happen to all this business if Catalonia seceded from Spain and struck out on its own? 

Already the region has felt the effects of financial insecurity following the referendum. Catalonia’s second-largest bank, Banco de Sabadell, plans to move its legal headquarters elsewhere. Biotech group Oryzon will relocate from Barcelona to Madrid. Financial services company CaixaBank has discussed a similar move. Just like Brexit in the UK, Catalonian secession (or Catalexit, as it has been called) makes businesses nervous.

“There is certainly a case to be made for Catalonia’s economic exceptionalism,” writes Mehreen Khan in the Financial Times. “The economy is more business-friendly industrialised, and internationalized, than most of the rest of Spain. Yet the prospect of a unilateral declaration of independence conjures up visions of capital controls, parliamentary shutdowns and legal uncertainties that businesses flee from.”

In sport, you could say the economic effects have already been felt. When Barça took on their La Liga rivals UD Las Palmas on October 1st, the day of the Catalonia independence referendum, the match was played behind closed doors at Camp Nou because the league authorities refused to postpone it.

Barcelona plays Las Palmas in front of empty stands at Camp Nou

An independent Catalonia would pose many problems for those in charge of Barça, and indeed the other two Catalan La Liga teams, RCD Espanyol (also based in Barcelona) and Girona FC (in the city of the same name). Understandably, given the enormous earnings from TV rights and sponsorship at stake, the last thing these clubs want is to be expelled from La Liga. 

So far, the La Liga president Javier Tebas has poured cold water on this suggestion. He recently suggested a new TV rights deal could raise the value of his league to €2.3bn. But should Barça leave, that figure is likely to drop severely. Not to mention the cultural loss Spanish sport would face without El Clásico between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid. 

“We are in the middle of a problem that could have a massive impact on the value of our competition,” Tebas has warned.

Catalonia could, in theory, start their own national league, with Barça, Espanyol and Girona featuring prominently, along with weaker teams such as FC Barcelona B, Gimnàstic de Tarragona, and CF Reus Deportiu. Since this would be a new league, UEFA would presumably force all teams to navigate the qualifying rounds of the Champions League and Europa League – a prospect that wouldn't appeal to the likes of Messrs Iniesta, Messi, Piqué and Suarez. There are surely escape clauses in their contracts for such a scenario. Their agents would sell them to the highest bidders quicker than a dive in the penalty area.

Catalan sports minister Gerard Figueras raised eyebrows when he suggested the three top clubs in his region could switch to France’s Ligue 1, Italy’s Serie A, or even England’s Premier League. He pointed out notable precedents: FC Andorra competes in Spain’s fifth tier, despite being a separate nation; AS Monaco FC plays in France’s Ligue 1; and several Welsh clubs plays in the English league system. 

“I don't think that UEFA has anything against seeing another club play in a different league from their country,” he added.

The authorities at FC Barcelona walk a tightrope between both sides of the political divide. While they desperately want to remain in La Liga for economic reasons, their supporters are overwhelmingly separatist, as evidenced by the huge number of Catalan flags you see unfurled at Camp Nou, and the chants of “Independencia!” that regularly echo around the stadium. 

Camp Nou is a crucible of sporting and political passion in which many young fans are first exposed to the clamour for separatism; a clamour so loud and sometimes so abusive that La Liga president Javier Tebas recently warned that the stadium could be closed temporarily if the chants are too insulting. 

“Chants about independence, right now, are not considered an insult, nor inciting violence,” he said. “But shouts such as ‘F**k Spain!’, ‘F**k Catalonia!’, ‘F**k Andalusia’ or similar have been denounced.” 

History proves just how closely sport and politics are intertwined in this region. In 1936, during the early days of the Spanish Civil War, Franco’s troops killed Josep Sunyol, the president of FC Barcelona and a prominent Catalan nationalist.
Perhaps understandably, then, official club statements tend to remain frustratingly neutral. 

“FC Barcelona, in remaining faithful to its historic commitment to the defense of the nation, to democracy, to freedom of speech, and to self-determination, condemns any act that may impede the free exercise of these rights,” read a recent statement. 

“Therefore, FC Barcelona publicly expresses its support for all people, entities, and institutions that work to guarantee these rights. FC Barcelona, in holding the utmost respect for its diverse body of members, will continue to support the will of the majority of Catalan people, and will do so in a civil, peaceful, and exemplary way.”

The club did, however, join the region-wide general strike that took place two days after the chaos and violence of the October referendum.

Club president Josep Bartomeu told members: “We can’t be manipulated by political interests, no one can take ownership of our shield and our flag. We know that Barcelona is more than a club, and that the Camp Nou has been a space for freedom of expression and respect. And that will continue to be the case.”

Football players are notorious for avoiding any political controversy and, sure enough, most Barça players have kept their mouths firmly shut. One who did break ranks, however, was Gerard Piqué, the centre-back who was born and raised in Barcelona, and who encouraged Catalans to vote for independence. 

He was later jeered by Spanish fans when he joined the Spanish national football team at a training camp in Madrid. It’s a reaction that suggests Catalan players wouldn't go anywhere near the Spanish national team if their region gained independence.
 
Intriguingly, a Catalonia national team already exists. It counts the likes of Pique, Sergio Busquets, Cesc Fabregas and Pep Guardiola among its former representatives, and has played many international matches since it debuted all the way back in 1905. It even counts the late, great Johan Cruyff as a former guest player and team coach. But it is not affiliated to either UEFA or FIFA, so it competes in neither the European Championships nor the World Cup. Post-independence, the Catalan Football Federation (Federacio Catalan de Futbol) would surely rectify that very rapidly. 

Other Catalonian sports would also move quickly to upgrade their regional federations to national status. Sport across the entire region is in fine fettle. Being Spain’s wealthiest area helps, as does the legacy of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Among certain minor sports – korfball, futsal, ten-pin bowling, Australian rules football, darts and rugby league, for example – there are even officially recognised national teams and governing bodies with memberships of their international federations.

Tennis is arguably the most significant sport in Catalonia after football. Thanks to a plethora of innovative tennis academies, such as Academia Sanchez-Casal, Bruguera Tennis Academy, Walter Grunfeld Tennis Academy and Barcelona Tennis Academy, the region has nurtured scores of world-class players over the years. Many of Europe’s top players – including Andy Murray, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Sergi Bruguera and Grigor Dimitrov – have, at one time or another, spent formative years training here.

When it comes to the Olympics and Davis and Fed Cups, an independent Catalonia could well be a force to be reckoned with. Just look at players from the region who have won Grand Slam titles in the past: Sergi Bruguera twice won Roland Garros in the 1990s; Arantxa Sánchez Vicario took four Grand Slams in the late 1980s and 1990s; Albert Costa won Roland Garros in 2002. 

Any loss of funding from the Spanish Tennis Federation could quickly be allayed through new income from Catalonian Davis Cup and Fed Cup events, and from the Barcelona Open (an ATP World Tour 500 Series event with Banc Sabadell as its current title sponsor). Affiliation fees from the many thriving amateur clubs across Catalonia would also fill the coffers of a breakaway federation.

It would be relatively easy for an independent Catalonian tennis federation to field Davis Cup, Fed Cup and Olympic teams. The International Tennis Federation told SportBusiness International that they would sanction such a move provided Catalonia was a member state of the United Nations or had an Olympic committee recognised by the IOC. Spanish players would then be free to choose whether to play under a Spanish flag or a Catalan one. 

A spokesman for the ITF told SportBusiness International “at this early stage there is nothing we can comment on specifically apart from confirming how our constitution works in general terms. We had similar enquiries in advance of the Scottish referendum.”

Spain’s current top player, Rafa Nadal, staunchly opposes Catalan independence. “I have spent many parts of my life in Catalonia, important moments, and to see society so radicalised surprises and disheartens me,” he said recently. 

“I feel very close to the Catalans and I feel very Spanish as well. I don't want to understand or see Spain without Catalonia. I think we have to make an effort to reach an understanding because I think we are, without any doubt, stronger together than separated. Spain is better with Catalonia and Catalonia is better with Spain.”

Nadal hails from Majorca, where the native language – Mallorqui – is a dialect of Catalan. Even more interesting is his choice of personal logo that you see emblazoned on all his tennis clothing. It’s a pair of bull’s horns – a reference to his aggressive playing style and his nickname ‘raging bull’.

Given bullfighting’s position on the front line of Catalonia’s battle for independence, you’ve got to wonder if this logo is now such a wise choice.
 

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