The Dramatic Decline of the Liga Asobal

Spanish Exodus

Player Exodus: Where 11 of 16 players from Spain’s 2013 World Championship Team will play their club handball this season
José Manuel Sierra, Paris (France)
Antonio García, Paris (France)
Alberto Entrerríos, Nantes (France)
Jorge Maqueda, Nantes (France)
Valero Rivera, Nantes (France)
Ángel Montoro, Toulouse (France)
Joan Cañellas, Hamburg (Germany)
Gedeón Guardiola. Rhein-Neckar (Germany
Julen Aguinagalde, Kielce (Poland)
Carlos Ruesga, Veszprem (Hungary)
Albert Rocas, Kolding (Denmark)
5 players (Arpad Sterbik, víctor Tomás, Dani Sarmiento, Viran Morros and Aitor Ariño) will remain in Spain and play for Barcelona.

The Spanish National Team player exodus  and Barca’s domination definitively show how this once mighty league has fallen on hard times.

The Great Recession has pretty much impacted in the entire world, but in Spain the crisis has been felt particularly hard.  Property value that once soared to record heights tumbled precipitously leading in turn to banking problems and soaring unemployment.  While a major sport like soccer has been able to weather the storm, handball clubs have had more trouble.  The first warning signs were reports of some of the bottom tier teams in the Liga Asobal not being able to make payroll.  This led to many 2nd tier professional players from other European countries deciding that they were better off playing elsewhere.  Only the two top clubs, Ciudad Real and Barcelona, were able to keep their top players, but then Ciudad Real started to show cracks in its finances with a sudden relocation/merger with Atletico Madrid in an attempt to stave off bankruptcy.  A move that merely postponed that reality to 2013.

Long Odds

With Madrid Atletico’s demise the Liga Asobal has gone from a marginally interesting two horse race between Madrid and Barcelonal to a ridiculously one sided coronation for Barca.  How ridiculous?  Well, the current odds of Barca not winning the Liga Asobal are 200-1.  Online sports books have even posted odds for second place since the mere thought of another side winning seems too remote of a possibility.  Yes, Barcelona is a great side and they are even the top favorite to win the Champions League, but barring a betting scandal (certainly a possibility with one recent roster addition) the only item of possible interest in the Liga Asobal is whether they will run the table with an undefeated season.  And, I haven’t seen the odds on that, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they aren’t something like 1-10.

For several years the Liga Asobal had been regarded along with Germany’s HBL as one of the two top professional leagues in the world.  One just had to look at the club rosters and point to the who’s who list of top players from other countries to see that the league was loaded with talent.  Jackson Richardson, Jerome Fernandez and Didier Dinart from France;  Ivano Balic, Mirza Dzomba and Igor Vori from Croatia; Tomas Svensson and Jonas Kallman from Sweden; Olafur Stefansson from Iceland; Mikkel Hansen from Denmark; Kiril Lazarov from Macedonia, Lazlo Nagy from Hungary and many more.  And surely Talant Dushebajev and his son Alex would not be Spanish citizens if not for the opportunities Spain provided for a talented handball player.  Yes, for many years, with few exceptions, the top players of the world had two options if the wanted to maximize their salary potential:  play in either Spain or Germany.

The Spanish Exodus

Now outside of Barca there’s only a smattering of foreign players in the Liga Asobal.  And many of these foreign players are actually lesser known talents from Latin America.  Even more telling is the exodus of Spanish National Team players to other leagues in Europe.  Previously, it was somewhat of a novelty to see a Spaniard playing anywhere else but Spain.  Now with Madrid’s demise it’s commonplace.  The map above highlights where 11 members of Spain’s January World Championship team are now playing professionally.  And this doesn’t include other notable players like Berlin’s Iker Romero and several 2nd tier players who’ve also left Spain in search of greener pastures.

Tax breaks and subsidies

When I first started following professional club handball 10 years ago I was puzzled as to why Spain rivaled Germany as the world’s top league.  The primary confusion for this American was simply a glance into the stands at the occasional Champions League match I saw played there and at a 30 minute weekly Liga Asobal highlight show.  With a few notable exceptions there were always more empty seats than fans in the stands.  A sharp contrast to the typical HBL match where the attendance was much stronger.  And even the typical match in France seemed to have more fans.  How do these Spanish Clubs pay higher salaries if they’re bringing in less revenue this Capitalist American wondered?

Insight into this answer came from another sport, basketball, where my club in France, Levallois had a professional team in the 2nd division.  As often is the case in Europe, there were usually a couple of Americans playing for the club and their salary was often a significant part of the club payroll.   One season an American playing for the club decided that he wanted more money, in the middle of the season, no less.  Being an uninformed American I assumed my club had two basic choices:  1) They could bow to the demand and pay him more; or 2) They could refuse the demand (after all, he signed the contract) and have a somewhat disgruntled player for the rest of the season.  But, this was France and the tax structure offered a 3rd choice:  They could pay his salary for the rest of the season and send him away; recoup the tax money on his remaining salary; and then use that money to hire another American for the remainder of the season.  And this is what my club did; Successfully, I might add as they moved up into the 1st division that season.

Further research and discussion with my teammates brought up a sore spot in regards to Spain.  The amount that Spanish sports clubs have to pay in taxes is a pittance compared to other countries.  And in some instances cities even provided substantial funds to clubs in the form of subsidies.  These tax breaks and subsidies were the primary reasons why Spanish clubs are were able to pay better salaries despite less revenue being brought in.  The chickens, however, have come home to roost as the financial crisis has resulted in a general collapse in municipal revenues and subsidies have dried up.  Further causing pain has been a decrease in fan discretionary spending causing significant revenue declines.  A double whammy if you will.

Barca Survives (or should I say thrive?)

So while the rest of the Liga Asobal crumbles around it Barca is still a shining beacon for Spanish Club Handball.  Arguably, they are the best team in the world.  How do they do it?  It’s certainly not due to an adoring fan base.  I don’t know how many times I’ve seen a Champions League match with the stands of the Palau Blaugrana half full (or worse) for an attractive match against a top club.  No, Barcelona Handball survives, or more accurately thrives, on the shoulders of Barcelona Football.  With a net worth of $1 Billion dollars the club can afford to throw a few millions at its handball club.  Why, it chooses to do so is less clear.  Perhaps it simply relishes the “mother club” aspect and the prestige of being the best in Europe in multiple sports.  The fact that it is an association with 170,000 members also surely has something to do with it.  It’s one thing for an individual owner to say, “I’m not going to keep spending money on this minor sport if it runs a net deficit year after year” and another thing for a collective to make such a decision.

The recession, however has even hit Barca football and the team has been running a debt in recent years.  Perhaps belt tightening will even hit Barca handball soon.  With the further weakening of its competition in the Liga Asobal, Barca could drop 3 or 4 name players and still run away with the title.  And they would still be competitive in the Champions League, just not a dominant player.

Who knows what the future will bring?  All I can say is that if anybody told me 5 years ago there would be more Spanish National Team players in France (then the reverse) in 2013 I wouldn’t have believed them.