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Spain's La Liga works to be a premier soccer league in its own right

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Top soccer players flock to Spain's La Liga, but not all teams in league enjoy benefits of increased attention

Gareth Bale was born in Wales and learned to play professional soccer in the English Premier League. But lately he's become a passionate advocate for Spain's La Liga, where he is about to begin his second season with Real Madrid.

"The Spanish league is the most exciting and the world's top players play there," he told the BBC. "The Premier League is a great league but we are attracting the best players to La Liga."

Bale, lured to Spain by a record $140-million transfer fee last summer, talked with the BBC a day after his team paid another $148 million for World Cup stars James Rodriguez of Colombia and Toni Kroos of Germany. In Madrid they will join a roster that includes not just Bale but reigning world player of the year Cristiano Ronaldo and Spanish national team captain Iker Casillas.

Two weeks earlier, league rival Barcelona paid $126 million — the third-highest transfer fee in history — for Liverpool's Luis Suarez, who joins a team that includes four-time world player of the year Lionel Messi and Brazilian standout Neymar.

And more stars could be coming with Manchester United reportedly close to a deal that would send Mexican striker Javier Hernandez and Japanese midfielder Shinji Kagawa to Spain.

"This is just the beginning," says La Liga President Javier Tebas. "We've demonstrated over the last five seasons that capacity to attract good players. We have the best teams in the world and the best players in the world. So without a doubt it's the best league in the world."

Actually that last point is up for debate. Because while those star-studded rosters have helped Real Madrid and Barcelona establish themselves as the world's two most valuable sports franchises — Fortune magazine says Real is worth more than the Dodgers and Lakers combined — that rising tide is not raising all boats in the 20-team Spanish league.

If anything, the widening gap in talent and financial resources that separates Real and Barcelona from the rest of La Liga is threatening to make Spain's league season, which starts Aug. 23, all but irrelevant.

France's Ligue 1, which has its own super-rich superpower in Paris Saint-Germain, became the first of Europe's five major soccer leagues to kick off the new season when it opened play Friday, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic scoring twice — but missing a penalty kick — in a 2-2 draw with Reims.

England's Premier League starts next weekend, to be followed by Germany's Bundesliga on Aug. 22, La Liga a day later and, finally, Italy's Serie A on Aug. 31.

And all five leagues begin their campaigns lacking parity. In France, the deep-pocketed Qatari owners of Paris Saint-Germain have spent so lavishly the team has won consecutive league titles while being heavily penalized by UEFA, European soccer's governing body, for violating financial fair play rules.

Ditto Manchester City, whose Abu Dhabi owners have also been sanctioned for overspending while winning two of the last three EPL titles. Meanwhile Bayern Munich, with a roster that includes six starters from the German team that won last month's World Cup, has captured three of the last five Bundesliga championships while in Italy Juventus has won three consecutive crowns.

But nowhere is the lack of equality more pronounced than in Spain, where Atletico Madrid's draw with Barcelona on the final day of play in May ended a streak that had seen Barcelona and Real combine to win nine consecutive La Liga titles.

That success helped both teams negotiate broadcast deals far more lucrative than those of their league rivals, bringing in millions they used to sign players such as Bale, Rodriguez and Suarez, further widening the gap between rich and poor.

Because Spanish clubs are allowed to cut their own broadcast deals, Real and Barcelona earned nearly $190 million each from TV rights in 2012-13, 46% of the total earned by La Liga's 20 teams combined. Atletico Madrid, with the third-best broadcast deal, got about a third that amount while 12 teams — more than half the league — reportedly had TV contracts worth less than $19 million each.

With many La Liga teams struggling with massive debt, such inequality threatens to destroy the league. But Tebas isn't panicking.

"There are two giant clubs. But there are also other clubs as well," he said in a phone interview. And despite their financial problems, Tebas points out, Sevilla, Atletico Madrid and Athletic Bilbao have all reached the Europa League final in the last three years.

"Everything is possible in the world of sports," he adds cheerfully. "Especially in soccer, where with little money you can win championships."

Remaining competitive over time, however, is another matter. Consider the plight of Atletico Madrid. After winning its first league title in 18 years and reaching the Champions League final for the first time in four decades, the club still couldn't afford to keep the core of its roster, losing Diego Costa, David Villa and Filipe Luis to better-paying teams outside Spain.

And that has again drawn the attention of Spanish politicians who, for the third time in five years, have proposed legislation that would, among other things, transfer control of TV deals to the league, which would then split the money more evenly much as the EPL does. Those reforms are expected to be approved by the end of the year.

Tebas would also like to see La Liga teams adopt other EPL models for raising money as well. This summer, for example, nine English teams spent part of their preseason touring the U.S., where guarantees of $2 million or more per game are not uncommon and sponsorship deals can earn teams tens of millions more.

As a result increasing his league's profile in the lucrative U.S. and Asian markets has become a key goal for the Costa Rican-born Tebas, who met with potential business partners in San Francisco earlier this summer to push his message.

"La Liga is much more than two teams," he says. "These players wouldn't come to a league that wasn't competitive."

But unless the league's financial model expands beyond the current duopoly, most of those players won't be able to afford a long stay.

Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter @kbaxter11

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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