Argentina’s football league is under pressure to end Fútbol para Todos (football for all) — the programme bringing live domestic football to free-to-air television — as the country’s first division clubs continue to underperform in financial terms.
For the last few years, the allocation of football TV rights has been a controversial issue in Argentina. Until 2009, football rights for the Primera Division were owned by TSC, a company jointly owned by Torneos y Competencias and Clarín Media Group. In the summer of the same year, several teams were facing financial difficulty and were lacking the basic financial requirements to register for the Asociación del Fútbol Argentino (AFA) — the national football association. The government decided to buy the football rights and to broadcast every game publicly through a new platform, named Fútbol para todos. A new contract was signed by all the teams in the top two tiers of the football association.
The prime minister, Cristina Kirchner, was widely criticised for this decision, mostly because of the high costs for the acquisition and maintenance of the service but also for the way advertising was sold. Private organisations were not allowed to advertise during matches. It was argued that football was being used as a political instrument by the governing party. Critics claimed that important matches were rescheduled to coincide with speeches by opposition politicians.
The reform of the Argentinian football was one of the most important points in the new centre right government elected last November. The incoming prime minister Mauricio Macri was fully aware of the football environment in his country, having been the owner of Boca Juniors — one of the biggest teams in South America — since 1995. Therefore, nobody was surprised when Macri modified the allocation of football rights as one of his first actions after his party’s election victory.
The first step of this reform was the sale of football rights to private broadcasters. But despite the partial liberalisation of the market, this industry is still heavily regulated. Also, the public TV will broadcast all games outside the area covered by the private broadcasters (not all of them cover 100% of the national territory). This rule guarantees that it is possible for the entire population to watch every game of the league for free. The existence of this rule is crucial in a country where violence at football stadia is a major issue: away supporters are not allowed to buy tickets for any game in the league; broadcasting football on free-to-air TV is part of security measures to control crowds. One of the clauses included in the contract signed by the AFA and FPT ensures that all matches will be broadcast free-to-air until the end of the current contract in 2019.
The current season of the league, which started in February, is the first of the new cycle. The rights to broadcast the games played by the four biggest teams — Boca Juniors, River Plate, Racing Club de Avellaneda and Independiente — have been sold to Canal 13 and Téléfé, owned respectively by the Clarín Group and Telefónica. San Lorenzo’s games will be covered by Canal 9, América and TV Pública in rotation. The games played by the other teams (a total of 30 teams split into two leagues) will be broadcasted publicly on the Tv Pública and online, by the Fútbol para todos’ YouTube channel.
Under the terms of the agreement, Canal 13 and Téléfé will pay 180 million pesos ($13 million) to the four leading clubs to broadcast their games. This amount represents less than 10% of the $1.9 billion transferred by the government to the AFA. The sum paid by the government has increased since the first year of the contract. It was 590 million pesos for the first year in 2009, rising to 1.41 billion pesos in 2014, finally reaching 1.9 billion pesos in 2015. In total it has been reported that the government has spent more than eight billion pesos (around $570 million) since the institution of Fútbol para todos.
The way football rights are allocated in Argentina is not economically sustainable either for the government, which has never been close to covering its investment on rights during the programme, or for the teams, which could certainly have generated more revenue from a different system. IHS Technology estimates that the revenues from the sale of football rights for the Argentinian domestic league are the smallest of the seven most important tournaments in the world (the other six being: English Premier League, the German Bundesliga, La Liga in Spain, Serie A in Italy, the French Ligue 1, and the Brasileirão — the national tournament in Brazil.
Also, these revenues have not guaranteed the Argentinian teams the same profitability as other clubs in America. In fact, according to research published by Forbes Mexico in August last, the ranking of the 10 richest teams outside Europe does not include any Argentinian team. This result is surprising if we take into account the importance of Argentinian football in South America. The last two winders of the Copa Libertadores (the regional inter-club competition equivalent to Europe’s Champions League) were Argentinian: River Plate in 2014 and San Lorenzo in 2015. Seven out of the last 16 winners from 2000 to 2015 were Argentinian. The continental supremacy is deep-rooted: 24 of the 56 editions were won by Argentinian teams since the first one in 1960, more than any other federation.