La Roja: An Interview with Jimmy Burns

Euro 2012 is moving to the quarterfinal stage and Spain has booked its entry into the quarterfinals.  The national team is arguably the best in the world, home to some of the top clubs in the world and home base for Messi, Ronaldo and a host of top players.  Today, Footiebusiness is pleased to provide our chat with Jimmy Burns, author of La Roja, a fascinating book about Spanish soccer.  Mr. Burns looks at the rise of the game in Spain through the context of history and politics, a unique approach befitting the Spanish team.

Mr. Burns spent thirty years as a senior writer at the Financial Times. He has also reported for the BBC, CNN, National Public Radio, and other outlets. The winner of the Somerset Maughan prize for nonfiction, Burns is the author of, among other titles, When Beckham Went to Spain; Maradona: The Hand of God; Barca: A People’s Passion; Papa Spy: Love, Faith and Betrayal in Wartime Spain; and most recently La Roja: How Soccer Conquered Spain and How Spanish Soccer Conquered the World.

Thanks to Mr. Burns. In  La Roja you look at the history of Spanish soccer through the lens of the historical and political events that were forming the nation of Spain.  Do you think that Spanish soccer is more interwoven with national history than other soccer nations?  If so why is Spain unique in this regard?

Jimmy Burns:  You can’ t really explain or understand the development of Spanish soccer without looking at the impact politics has had on it over the years.

And what makes the story of Spanish soccer particularly fascinating is the fact that its  coincides with a period during which Spain has evolved from being one of the most backward countries in European to being a modern democratic state with all its channels and complexities. Politics gives Spanish soccer its particular narrative and its dynamic.

FB: Barcelona and Real Madrid are the most recognizable clubs in Spain and its most significant rivals.  How did culture and regionalism help form that rivalry?  Are those factors still relevant today?

JB: This rivalry, which is probably the  most intense and enduring rivalry in the history of sport, had its early beginnings at the start of the 20th century- a post-imperial period for Spain when  the centralized nation-state based in the Spanish capital Madrid faced challenges from Catalonia, and other regions with a growing sense of its own cultural and social identity, including flags and language, different from the rest of Spain.

During the long dictatorship of General Franco-1939-1975-Real Madrid came to be identified by its enemies as the team of the regime, while Barca became what its motto says- mes que en club– more than a club in the sense that it became equated with a whole cultural and political movement unique to Catalonia. Denied political freedoms, the Catalans found expression for the frustrated demands in supporting their soccer club. 

While it would be unfair and unrealistic to say that Real Madrid remains Franco’s team so long after his death, the tensions between central government and Spain’s most powerful region Catalonia remains as intense as ever as does the rivalry between two great soccer clubs.

FB: The Spanish national team has risen to the top of the world soccer powers.  Has the cultural divide between Catalonia and the rest of Spain been a significant factor in the nation’s rise to soccer superiority?

JB: I think the flair and brilliance one identifies with Spanish soccer is the result of  a convergence of foreign influences- English, Latin American and Dutch in particular-  and native talent in a system of play which has been developed almost to perfection at club level by FC Barcelona where the spirited physical soccer taught by the early British pioneers in Spain has given way to a much more creative, technical game. The Spanish national team has been fortunate in recent years to have had coaches like Luis Aragones and Vicente Del Bosque who have managed to bring together the best players from Spanish clubs and got them to play with the style of Barca, and the spirit of Real Madrid.

FB: Has the increasing amount of money in the game of soccer changed the dynamics of Spanish club soccer?  Are traditional rivalries fading because of player movement and foreign involvement?

JB: I think that more money has translated in the case of Spanish club soccer into a virtual  duopoly where  FC Barcelona and Real Madrid tend to dominate La Liga by the privileged  access they have to the bulk of TV revenues, and major sponsorship.  I believe this makes the rivalry even more exciting with clubs fielding great foreign stars like Messi and Ronaldo while investing in the development of their youth teams.

FB: Given the rather unique combination of history and sports in the book, who is your intended audience?

JB: I hope that my book La Roja will appear not just to people interest in soccer, but also to people interested in Spanish history and politics- as I’ve said it’s what gives then narrative its uniqueness.

FB: What efforts are being made to promote the book?

JB: On Google and twitter its getting some great promo.  It’s getting a good airing across all media platforms on both sides of the Atlantic-TV and radio interviews, newspaper and magazine reviews, websites, blogs, podcasts, twitters and others social networks.

All the commentary  has been positive and much of it hugely enthusiastic- I’ve picked this up on both of what I’ve read and what I have experienced directly from my growing army of fans at the speaking events I have been doing in Ireland,Britain, and Spain.

I am really looking forward to doing a couple of events in New York in the last week of June.

FB: Finally, do you have a pick for Euro 2012?

  JB: I suppose you have guessed it already- Spain-although it’s going to have to play even better than it did in the World Cup of 2010 if it is to win the tournament. I think Germany remains an important rival but generally the quality of this Euro competition is very high. I would like Spain to win the championship on its own merit.

Jersey Sponsors: MLS v. Europe

On January 12, 2011, the Philadelphia Union of Major League Soccer announced a four year, $12 million dollar deal with Mexican food conglomerate Bimbo.   While the notion of prominent uniform advertisements is foreign in most American sports, MLS has embraced such sponsorships as an important source of revenue.  After the expiration of deals in Columbus and Chicago, six MLS franchises are searching for a primary jersey sponsor,while  the rest of the teams have inked deals worth millions of dollars with world renown companies such as Microsoft, BMO and VW.  Although still in its infancy, MLS’s recent foray into the world of jersey sponsorships provides an interesting comparison to the value placed on such ads in other prominent leagues.

In December, FC Barcelona signed a five year, $200 million dollar jersey sponsorship deal with the Qatar Foundation.  The deal was especially notable because of the storied club’s prior refusal to carry a commercial sponsorship on their chest.  The team had paid UNICEF for the past five years for the privilege of wearing the charity’s name on its kit.  In England, EPL leaders Manchester United wear the name of Chicago based Aon Corp. on their jerseys.  According to USA today, the deal to replace fallen AIG was valued at $131 million dollars over four years.  According to the same report, the deal was worth more than 17% over the T-Home sponsorship of Bundesliga club Bayern Munich.

Yet for purposes of comparison, these world renown clubs are probably not the best marker for the nascent teams in MLS.  Many of the mid-table and drop zone candidates in European leagues carry deals that compare favorably to their MLS cousins.    Last season, the BBC reported that seven EPL clubs carry sponsorship deals valued at less than $1.6 million dollars. According to a recent analysis conducted by SPORT + MARKT, the 18 remaining teams in La Liga (after Barcelona and Real Madrid are removed), average less than $2.5 million per jersey deal.  Similarly, with all 20 teams accounted for in France’s Ligue 1, the average jersey sponsorship is valued at less than $4 million dollars per team.

With a significant number number of MLS deals worth in excess of 2 million dollars annually (and some valued over $4 million per year), the data shows that once extreme outliers such as Barcelona and Manchester United are exluded, companies are willing to invest similar dollars for a slice of the uniform in MLS and Europe.  While many fans will find these numbers surprising, these figures show the value of the American marketplace and the tremendous growth MLS has made among corporate marketers in the last 15 years.

Business Bits: Bye Bye Barca

barcaMLS and FC Barcelona announced today that the storied Spanish Club is withdrawing its bid to enter the League in 2010.  Citing the economy and market conditions, the parties mutually agreed to walk away from the proposed Miami franchise.  We have previously posted about the viability of the South Florida market. With Barcelona out of the way, things are definitely looking up for Vancouver, St. Louis and Portland. According to this post at the 24th minute, Vancouver and Portland have wrapped up the slots for the next round of expansion.

In other news, tickets for the June World Cup Qualifier against Honduras have gone on sale.   The game is scheduled for Soldier Field, and interestingly, will be shown on ESPN Classic and Galavision.  ESPN seems to be playing games here.  There is no good reason this game isn’t on ESPN or ESPN2, other than using Classic as a pseudo pay per view.  Based on the ratings from the last qualifier, the Sports Leader is counting on a big increase in subscribers for Classic because of the game.

Finally, according to a story in the Daily Free Press, the Revs seem to be weathering the economic slowdown quite well.  The paper interviewed Liz Summers, the Revs’ director of communication:

“[Soccer] have not been affected as you may have seen others,” she said. “It’s an entirely different season ticket pack, discounted regardless of the economy. We’re a different entity because our value point, our price point, is at a much different level.”

Individual ticket prices range from about 15 to 20 dollars Summers said, and the Revolution also offers free parking, which helps keep them “a little bit of a different entity.”

“Season ticket sales are on par, if not ahead,” she said. “In ticket sales we’re doing very well. Soccer is still growing. There’s a line of cities trying to get into the door to get teams.”

Summers also said the Revolution has long-term deals for advertising and are increasing their advertising to online, adjusting to where the marketing deals are. That specific move has nothing to do with the economic issues, she said.revs

MLS to Miami? Does South Florida deserve a second chance?


When MLS officials announced the next round of expansion, St. Louis, Montreal and even Portland were among the favorites to land the new franchises.  Passed over in the prior round of expansion, St. Louis, lead by Attorney Jeffrey Cooper, landed a stadium deal and big name investors like Albert Pujols.  Nevertheless, MLS has long had concern about Cooper’s financial stability.

When Montreal  and Atlanta dropped out of the race (leaving Portland, Ottawa and Vancouver among the possibilities) the Gateway City seemed almost guaranteed a spot for 2011.  Then a dark horse entered the race in the form world famous F.C. Barcelona.


The Spanish powerhouse combined with Marcelo Claure and Florida International University to     submit a bid to bring MLS back to South Florida.  As MLS fans well know, the Miami Fusion entered the League as an expansion team in 1998 and were contracted just four years later.  That background, combined with South Florida’s rather weak history of supporting its teams (Florida Marlins anyone?), has lead many to scoff at any move back to the Miami area.  Add in the lack of a Soccer Specific Stadium (the team would share with the FIU Football team) and the Miami bid seems like a sure loser.

However, the leadership of MLS seems to disagree.  Apparently wowed by the glam of FC Barcelona and the billions in Claure’s pockets, the league seems eager to embrace South Florida.  Commissioner Don Garber just announced that if the Miami bid is accepted, the team would start play in 2010, a year ahead of schedule and at the same time as Philadelphia.

Count me among the unconvinced.  The “beloved” Miami Dolphins strugle to sell out their games, the Panthers are barely a blip on the Miami scene and Marlins are an annual embarassment.  Why would MLS be any different? The idea of 9,000 fans snoozing through Sunday afternoon game in 110 degree Miami August heat, is a nightmare scenario for supporters of the Leage.   MLS may love the idea of Barca dumping money into its coffers, but like Chivas before them, I see little chance of a big time soccer power adjusting to life in Major League Soccer.  League rules will not permit “Barca USA” to serve as a farm team of the parent club or as a way station for up and coming talents.  MLS should have no interest in serving as a marketing opportunity for the Spanish Giants.  As much as Barca might love the idea of selling jerseys in North America, I think the League would be far better served  taking $40 million from St. Louis and and Portland in 2011.