Sports 28/02/2021

To be more than a club in the 21st century

Barça faces crucial elections immersed in debates over its ownership model, seeking a balance between its identity and a global marketplace

6 min
The Camp Nou seen from the air, in an archive picture
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BarcelonaAt one of the last board meetings chaired by Josep Maria Bartomeu, the then-president eventually lost patience as it was explained to him that first-team footballers were not helping when it came to cutting their salaries. "Barça is sinking", he blurted out, staring blankly at the screen where his fellow board members could see him. There was silence in the houses and the offices of that telematic meeting. The directors, who a few months earlier were trying to imagine how they could sign players like Neymar, were looking for solutions to guarantee the salaries of the workers. Already those days, in the WhatsApp groups of the club's employers jokes with an image of the Titanic with the shield of Barça circulated.

The second tier at Camp Nou before a match
Messi celebrating a goal with Pedri during this season

Founded in 1899 in the Gimnàs Solé, in a building near the Rambla, Barça is an entity that defends the romantic spirit of the 19th century: its members are still its owners. An entity that became great in the twentieth century and now undertakes the challenges of the twenty-first century with doubts and an economic crisis of which it is still difficult to understand the scope. "We must defend the model of ownership of Barça", Joan Laporta admits. "These are the most important elections in the modern history of the club", Victor Font defends. "The club has to continue being an independent model, only and exclusively owned by partners", Toni Freixa adds. The three candidates in the elections on March 7 agree that Barça must still be owned by its members. But they do not share the strategies to defend this special model. The "més que un club" ("more than a club") motto is in danger.

A club with values

The uniqueness of Barça, however, goes beyond this model. Other entities are also owned by the fans. In the case of Barça, "more than a club" also refers to values, identification with the country, and the desire to play a role in its society. Being more than a club in the 21st century implies maintaining a balance between a local, Catalan dimension and a global, international one. And continuing to aspire to be much more than a sporting entity. The Barça of 2050 will have little to do with the Barça of today. It would have to have a new stadium for a different football in which the competitions as they are now will not exist. The azulgrana club, in fact, has been at the forefront of talks to modify the current Champions League system and create, if necessary, a closed Super League. It will be a new Barça, with new sections, such as e-games, and more and more fans in each and every continent, which places in the debate a unique identity that has already overcome many previous crises, such as when in 1908, when it only had 32 members, an assembly was held with only one point on the agenda: to dissolve the club. Or the post-war period and the economic crisis of the 1960s following the construction of the Camp Nou. Crises that have been shaping the personality of an entity that boasts of being different.

An empty Camp Nou on a Champions League night during the pandemic

All this is faltering because of the economic crisis. Barça currently has total liabilities of 1,173 million euros, with a short-term debt of 730 million with banks, staff, and other clubs. The economy, then, has become one of the battlegrounds of the electoral process, with candidates criticising their opponents as potentially jeopardising the club's ownership model. Although there are other sports institutions in Europe that are owned by fans, most of Barca's rivals in international competitions are run by private companies and, in some cases, by financial funds linked to states such as the United Arab Emirates or Qatar. During his tenure, president Josep Maria Bartomeu used the concept of "state clubs" to refer to opponents such as, on French side, PSG, and English side, Manchester City, entities with capital from Persian Gulf monarchies behind them. "We have to defend our ownership model, but we have to look for solutions, as this makes it difficult to fight against these new rivals", Bartomeu admitted to ARA five years ago. When Francesco Calvo, head of marketing at Italian club Juventus, signed for Barça, he came out of a meeting with the directors stating that "this club model makes it very difficult to compete with other rivals" and complaining about having to ask permission to make decisions to directors who cannot devote 100% of their time to the club because they have other jobs and do not receive a salary from Barça. When on a tour of the United States the workers of the club explained how Barça works, the executives of the North American professional leagues looked surprised. "They couldn't understand how a president who doesn't get paid and can't be fired could take important decisions", one former executive recalls.

The law of sport

Barça's current ownership model dates back to 1992, when Spain's new sports law obliged football clubs in the First and Second League to become sporting limited companies. Only four clubs were able to prove good management by submitting audits showing that they had not suffered financial losses in previous years: Barça, Real Madrid, Athletic Club and Osasuna. However, their statutes had to be adapted to a new era, and the law of sport added an additional provision obliging directors to guarantee 15% of the club's annual budget. This fact greatly limited the number of members who could afford to present a candidacy.

Xavi Hernández lifting the Champions Cup in Berlin in 2015
Messi celebrating a goal in the Santiago Bernabéu in 2017

For many years Barça were able to strike a balance between their ownership model and sporting success, but the managerial overspending of recent years, coupled with the pandemic, has altered the scenario. "It's normal to suffer when from one day to the next they turn off a 300 million euro tap, which is what the stadium, the shops and the museum used to provide. There is no club, company or institution that does not notice it", the former director Emili Rousaud explained during the election campaign, who at the same time admitted that "having such a high wage bill, with Messi at the helm, is not sustainable in this context". In an increasingly aggressive football world, the club's management model has become the protagonist of a debate which has been more internal than external. "If you publicly say you want to change the model, you will be attacked by everyone. But behind closed doors everyone curses the model at some point. The club doesn't work like a company and running it like that is more complicated", says a former manager. "We thought the money would always come in, but we spent too much thinking that spending meant winning. And with the pandemic, we've hurt ourselves", the same source admits.

The Bayern model

According to economist Josep Maria Gay de Liébana, if Barça wants to remain leader, at some point it will have to face this debate and assess whether to sell part of the ownership of the club. One of the models that is cited in the offices of the Camp Nou as a possible inspiration is that of Bayern Munich, where 75% of the shares belong to an entity represented by the fans, who remain the owners. Three German multinationals - Adidas, Audi and Allianz - share the remaining 25%. In the case of Barça, according to Gay de Liébana, "different multinationals could be found who want to have international prominence in the hands of a global brand". None of the three candidates for next weekend's elections proposes such radical changes, aware that if they did, they would lose support. The ARA has been able to confirm, however, that in different meetings of the last board discussions on whether the model of Bayern was viable in Barça had been held. Debates that were not spelled out on the daily agenda.

Voting of the members during a Barça assembly
Camp Nou before a Liga game

And that things would have to be very bad before the club's ownership model would have to change. However, they do admit that there is a real risk that investment funds, companies or banks to which Barça owes money could exert some kind of influence over the club, which is willing to sell off assets such as Barça Studios, which feeds Barça TV and Barça TV+, the club's audiovisual content platform.

On the eve of crucial elections, Barça faces a key period in trying to find out how it can continue to be more than a club in the 21st century. In fact, even its membership does not reflect the reality of the country, as women make up less than 25% of the membership and the average age is approaching 60. A generation that has seen its Barça change a lot. And it will change even more.