You have a new house. How do you feel about it? Does anyone ever say, “You know, I prefer the old, musty, rickety place in which we used to live.”
FC Barcelona unveiled the plans for the nou Nou this week, in glittering detail. You can read about them here, and they are interesting. More fascinating is what the “rehabbed” stadium represents. More correctly, what is the new FC Barcelona all about (the club, as differentiated from the football team)?
On the surface, the answer to that question is easy: money. The new stadium represents so many things about the club but one of the most crucial is money, which is correct in many ways. A higher capacity will mean bigger matchday revenues. Increases in luxo-boxes will mean more funds flowing in from those. When the naming rights are sold (yes, they will be), that will mean even more money, all from a proposed 600 million gut rehab.
That the club is all about money isn’t a slam, spat with disdain. It’s a new reality.
Barça is the best football team on the planet, with a second string that would probably not fare too horribly in Liga. It was only last year that the team won a Treble, surfing the magic created by a front three that will go down in history as the best to ever share an attack. What’s easy to forget is the quality that stacks the rest of the roster. What’s even easier to forget is how much money all that talent costs, a price that is constantly rising.
Messi, Neymar, Suarez and Busquets will all be getting contract renewals soon, which means raises, bonuses, etc, etc. In thinking of the quip “a few million here, a few million there and pretty soon you’re talking about real money,” is apt, because a roster festooned with players such as Aleix Vidal, Ivan Rakitic and Arda Turan, is not cheap. The players almost certainly haven’t maximized their earning potential, choosing instead to take a bit less for the opportunity to roll with a juggernaut. An 8 million salary only seems low in context of a mega-earner such as Messi. But that consistently high quality of the roster means a lot of 6 and 8 million per bodies, because that is the quality required to not only compete, but excel.
FC Barcelona needs money. Forget about images of sweat-soaked men in a boiler room, stuffing shovelfuls of Euro notes into a furnace. This is bulldozers, pushing massive piles of cash into the mouth of a volcano. This makes one of the more fundamental necessities of the nou FCB, that it be a ho. Sell it. Sponsorships, naming rights, shirts, licensing agreements, sleeves of shirts, backs of shirts … sell it. Because the only way to continue winning, the only way to stave off the inevitable turmoil that will come when the winning stops, is to keep winning. More winning means more money.
We scoff at Florentino Perez flinging around stacks of cash to nab players such as James Rodriguez and Gareth Bale, but Neymar and Suarez weren’t exactly cheap. Neither was Turan. A giant club means giant signings, a lack of patience alongside the additional complexity of a short-sighted view that is, in many ways, a necessity. In many ways, the Bartomeu presidency has become almost the same, functionally, as the Laporta reign. “Give that coach what he wants!” The numbers will add up, because that’s what accountants are paid to do. The first transfer summer for new coach Luis Enrique was just like the first summer of new coach Pep Guardiola, and both nabbed a debutante treble. “You did it once, now do it again. And again.” The future is forever now.
The penalty for this is patience. Would the next Xavi have a chance in the “win now, dammit” environment ramped up by an insatiable fan base? Be Xavi now, or get out. A higher level in the first team means a higher level required of academy players, a bar that must be hurdled, or there is no time, not with that mega-spendy midfielder whose signing is all the rage.
So make no mistake about it, this new stadium is about money. Romantics will sigh wistfully as they recall matchday chaos, those dimly lit yellow signs directing ticketholders to the correct “Boca,” and the smell — that weird residue of bad food, thousands of bodies and age. Arsenal has the Emirates. Bayern has the Allianz. Manchester City has the Etihad. What do all of those stadiums have in common, besides being known as the names of their corporate sponsors? They are flashy, modern homes that are, in effect, a license to print money. According to Deloitte, Arsenal raked in almost EUR102m in matchday revenue. FC Barcelona was around EUR 90m. That is a staggering difference.
FC Barcelona is a Catalan institution that is wrestling with its identity at the same time as the Catalan people, in their quest for independence. Even though the world doesn’t need yet another “mes que un club” link, there it is. The entity represents so much to the city and its people. Even if someone might not care about football, they understand the place that Barça has on the global stage. It’s victory parades, celebrations and the best players in the world, led by a “local” lad. And so many feel it’s about time that all of that success had a home that makes people stick out their chests as much as the football team does.
The Camp Nou is rarely filled to its 96,000-seat capacity, so what’s the value of raising that capacity to 105,000, right? Money. The club could sell twice as many tickets for big matches as it does. Corporate sponsors would line up for the opportunity to have a Caesar-like view of the clashing gladiators, from a perch in the sky. Money. The relationship is vicious, and symbiotic. The more the club wins, the more it costs, the more money the club makes and the greater the cost to continue winning. Rakitic one year, Turan the next, Pogba after that? The transfer fees keep increasing because talent is more expensive, and talent that can compete at the level required by FC Barcelona is stratospheric.
But the new stadium isn’t just a money printing machine. It’s a symbol. Barça is the best team in the world, so why shouldn’t it have a home that represents that quality, right? Why should it visit the posh crib of a rival, only to have that club’s supporters giggle at the rickety shack in which their throats get cut. Why shouldn’t locals be proud of that new home, which is actually a fully modern sporting complex that will benefit every team that wears the blaugrana?
Snarling about values and identity is for the paupers. The trick for a club such as FC Barcelona is how to balance those things and still make the mountains of cash necessary to fulfill its destiny. The club recently renewed its sponsorship deal with UNICEF for EUR2m per annum, an increase that is now roughly what the club pays Douglas, even if UNICEF is vastly more useful. It represents a Quixotic tilting at the values windmill, a way to balance being a ho with doing good works, in some ways like the billionaire industrialist who feels better after he gives a panhandler twenty bucks. This isn’t to in any way snark about the relationship and the good that comes from it, for club and organization. But it’s also part of the balancing act that a massive, modern club must strike. “We’re giant, but we’re also human.”
FC Barcelona needs this new stadium. Not to sound like a board member, but for the club to compete at the necessary level, bigger cash flow from its home pitch is not only a demand but an expectation. Revenue sources have to be found in a world that is constantly getting more expensive. A new shirt deal will be found, not only with a title sponsor but with Nike. A separate training kit deal is possible. Everything is on the table.
Football clubs, particularly giant ones, are odd things. Why is FC Barcelona not more like Sevilla? Some is luck, some planning. But every giant club started out as a small, local one that had to figure out how to grow in the right way. FC Barcelona began life as a local club, then began to grow. Its status as a regional institution always allowed it to retain that charming link to the terra. The seeming dichotomy presented by mes que un club and modern giant club is present only if you don’t understand the meaning of the former. Mes que un club is very real. It isn’t idealism, but simple reality. This site has written before about the club struggling to find its place in the modern world and modern game, almost like the local country folks who have to buy new clothes and a fancy new car before a trip to the big city. This stadium is biggest plank in that makeover.
There is, of course, danger. As the lyrics to the Tom Waits song go, “Baby, I’ll stay with you, til’ the money runs out.” The quest for new revenue sources will be constant. Bartomeu and his board have the task of steering a club into the fully modern world, with the added pressures of EBITDA swords of Damocles, huge wage bills and a demanding fan base. The necessities of being a ho will have to be balanced with club values. Hiring Luis Enrique, and then having that coach win a treble in his first season, bought this board some time. A lot of time. The question is, what will they do with it, and how will the many questions be answered, such as “600 million?” “Really?” “Will this stadium affect the sporting project?”
This project began life under Sandro Rosell, and was always considered to be his monument. That seeming taint, in full fairness, tarnishes the view of a project that is, in the here and now, a necessity. Saying that future is uncertain is an understatement.