Spanish football fans are forever telling whoever will listen that La Liga is the best in the world, and not many would disagree given the standard of fare on offer. For many, however, the nearest they will get to seeing the action is from the comfort of their armchair or perched on a bar stool.
Rather than actually attending matches, a growing number of supporters are choosing to get their fix via television, although it is not too difficult to pinpoint the reasons why. The economic crisis affecting the country, the price of tickets and some ridiculously late kick-off times are all factors that are slowly turning the average Spanish football lover away from stadiums.
Nonetheless, the warning signs have so far gone unheeded. Take the opening day of the 2012-13 Primera campaign in mid-August, for example, when 61.22 per cent of stadium capacities were filled compared to 70.23 per cent the previous season. In other words almost 40 per cent of seats remained empty with three matches starting at a bizarre 11pm local time.
Of these, only 11,703 turned up at the Iberostar Stadium to see the Real Mallorca-Espanyol game, marginally more than half the capacity, with 14,295 witnessing Levante take on Atletico Madrid in the Ciutat de Valencia, which was 58.86 per cent full. Real Valladolid’s visit to Real Zaragoza, however, caused slightly more concern as La Romareda registered a miserable 11,000 spectators, 31.79 per cent of the 34,596 it holds.
It was a similar story elsewhere apart from at Real Madrid, Athletic Bilbao and Deportivo de La Coruna, with even Barcelona falling an incredible 41,000 short of filling the Camp Nou for their first home match. Granted, many Spaniards were still on holiday and games were played in over 30 degrees of heat, but it still painted a disturbing picture. Unsurprisingly, alarm bells have started to ring, although not yet, it appears, within the Spanish League and the Spanish Football Federation, the organisations responsible for administering the game.
Although season ticket prices for La Liga fans are competitive compared to other European Leagues, before supporters purchase them they are faced with not knowing on what day games will be played – either Saturday, Sunday or Monday, with even Friday a possibility as evidenced by the recent Celta Vigo-Sevilla clash – or what time they start. This is usually decided around 10-14 days before the scheduled fixture, yet fans can justifiably be forgiven for thinking their personal lives and routines are increasingly subject to the whims of television moguls.
It is also a scenario that deters even the most ardent follower from attending away games, given most travel arrangements need to be finalised in advance. If we throw in the fact that during festive periods such as Christmas and New Year - when people are off work - the competition is suspended, then it is little wonder there is a massive potential audience sat in front of TV screens.
To be fair to some clubs, they have realised the need to generate extra income and not rely solely on a share of television money or fans’ traditional loyalty in order to survive. Malaga, for instance, are one of the clubs that has reversed the trend, thanks chiefly to a first-ever Champions League participation, and have reduced prices for big games despite the Qatari owners appearing to have withdrawn their financial backing. The majority of tickets for their Champions League qualifier against Panathinaikos went on sale for as little as €5, while €55 buys a season ticket holder entry to all three group games.
The penny also seems to have dropped at Getafe, where President Angel Torres has just taken measures to attract fans to the usually half-empty Coliseum Alfonso Perez. These include a pass for the second half of the season for just €50, with extra tickets thrown in for supporters who find it difficult to attend certain games, in addition to three-game packages at accessible amounts. There are also plans to cut admission prices next year by a whopping 30 per cent.
It is certainly a start and a few clubs have already looked at the Bundesliga model of how to successfully entice fans to sample their product, which many would argue is inferior to La Liga’s. Nonetheless, the rulers of Spanish football must realise some of their decisions are slowly strangling the watching of a game that, if they are not careful, could soon be played in grounds with little or no atmosphere.