In June 2015, FC Barcelona once again took the crown of European football by winning the Champions League. This proved that a very special aura emanates from this club. Not for nothing does Barca immodestly follow the motto „Més que un club“ (More than just a club). It has one of the largest stadiums in Europe, is the second largest club in the world with 162,000 members and has the second most visited museum in the whole of Spain with the Club Museum. But what makes FC Barcelona one of the most successful clubs in the world?
The Catalan national team
One might argue that mainly the past and the regional identity have made Barca what it is today. And yes, that is not wrong. Of course, the historical background, political power games and also the fact that FC Barcelona sees itself as the unofficial Catalan national team have helped bring the to the big stage of world football. And the ongoing rivalry between Barca and arch-enemy Real Madrid C.F. also contributes to Barca’s mystification.
Positioning as a club with strong regional, Catalan roots.
Barca is seen as an identity bearer of the Catalan people, and the anti-centralism that is resurgent throughout Spain is looking everywhere for signs of identity, no matter how and of what kind. The older fans in particular are strengthened in their sense of belonging by their shared history of civil war and repression by the Franco regime. The younger fans are also influenced by this, of course, but they are bound even more strongly by outstanding footballers such as Messi or Neymar. Beyond sporting success, Barca uses values such as prestige, tradition, size & strength, but also solidarity, freedom, integration and „public spiritedness“ as anchor points for brand communication. It is particularly interesting how socially Barca presents itself. For example, it is a tradition to offer membership to newborn babies (even unbaptised ones). In addition, Barca offers a free childcare service on match days and guarantees extensive participation rights for club members. The club is to remain owned by the members. All social and grounded. But to think that Barca is a charity would also be wrong. Behind the club, which also has world-class teams in other sports (including basketball and handball), is a sophisticated marketing concept. A concept that brings in far more than 100 million euros every season through sponsorships alone and is expressed not least in gigantic TV contracts.
Mes Que Un Club – Authentic Image or Marketing Machine?
Is Barca really such a social club? How about this view: The social image is also just one building block in the marketing strategy. The calculation is quite simple: the more fans are emotionally attached to their club, the more they identify with it and are prepared to spend more money on merchandising articles or tickets. It may sound sweeping, but is it so wrong? Either way, the concept of „We don’t have a marketing strategy. We just want to deliver a good game and a good show“ works. The simplicity behind it is ingenious and simple at the same time.
Interior view of the Camp Nou (Source: Shutterstock)
Balancing act between regional identity and global marketing claim
Various studies confirm that FC Barcelona is one of the most important brands in world football. This is achieved by spreading the „FC Barcelona brand“ to all five continents. To this end, the team tours Asia and North America during the pre-season, international sponsors with charisma in growth markets are specifically sought and even the transfer policy is partially subordinated to this theme. The most important criterion for deciding on a player is, of course, his ability, but the following motto is often applied: „If the player has charisma and a global profile, it can help leverage the FCB brand globally“. Realistically one has to look with a magnifying glass for the Catalans among the footballers. Imports predominate, especially the world stars who have contributed to the club’s upswing do not come from Catalonia. Nevertheless, it is not ruled out that even a „foreigner“ can quickly identify with the tradition and develop into a true Barcelonese. Tradition without tradition.
And yet tradition is anything but trampled underfoot. The best example of this was the way in which the more than 100-year-old tradition of advertising-free jerseys was broken about 15 years ago. Let’s take a closer look at this case: The fact that the protests were limited was also due to the fact that the club developed its sponsorship strategy sensitively and Barca introduced its fans gently to commercial sponsorship. The gentle break with tradition – or, depending on your point of view, the first step towards modernity – began in an unusual way in the 2006/2007 season: Barcelona agreed on a five-year partnership with the children’s charity Unicef. But let’s start from the beginning …
Social responsibility beats economic interests. At least in the meantime.
On 6 May 2005, a murmur went through the international sports landscape. The highest sponsoring contract in football history was about to be signed. After Barca had already received many offers from possible sponsors such as Telefonica or a betting company, the offer from the Chinese state exceeded all expectations. China offered Barca a sum of more than 150 million euros. The five-year contract included a shirt presence, image rights and a tour of matches in China. A bonus of 7 million euros was to be paid out in addition if the team won the UEFA Champions League. China not only wanted to promote the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, but also to draw attention to China as a tourist destination. However, the club’s management rejected this offer. The 106-year-old tradition of advertising-free jerseys was to be broken, but under the motto „jersey sponsorship the other way round“. Barca decided to follow its tradition and go the ’social way‘. The children’s charity UNICEF was henceforth supported by Barca for five years, with its logo proudly displayed by the players on their chests. This did not just happen for free. On the contrary: the club donated 1.5 million euros annually to UNICEF. But this was Barca’s farewell to the bare chest.
From social commitment to mega-deal
And once again the self-image of the club, which wants to be more than just a club, became clear. Or was it just perfectly staged marketing again? In any case, the fans were thrilled by so much – let’s say – selflessness. Who doesn’t like to support a children’s charity? In any case, Barca was not criticised for it. One thing is clear: loyalty and thus jersey sales have probably risen sharply. This strategy is well thought out, especially when the consequences are considered realistically. The jersey sponsorship had been introduced, the fans got used to seeing advertising on the jerseys. And at the end of the five years, the path to professional sponsorship was paved. In December 2010, the club signed a jersey sponsorship contract for the first time (wicked tongues claim only because of the immense financial difficulties). Through the contract with Qatar Sports Investments, Barca collected 75 million euros in the first two and a half years. This was followed by extremely lucrative deals with Qatar Airways and the Japanese online giant Rakuten.
Barca jersey with Rakuten logo (Source: Horizont.net)
In November 2020, the latter contract was prematurely extended by one season until June 2022. Although nothing is known about the payments from Rakuten included in the contract extension, it is likely to be in the same league as the 55 million euros per season paid so far. In the Bundesliga, even top clubs like FC Bayern (45 million per season / Telekom) can only dream of such sums.
Economic imbalance of unimagined proportions
In recent years, however, more and more news about FC Barcelona’s financial situation has tarnished its image. According to the latest information, Barca’s debts amount to an unbelievable 1.17 billion euros – of which almost 70% are short-term outstanding debts. Quite obviously, FC Barcelona’s economic behaviour has been anything but serious and sustainable: in particular, plannable items such as salary and transfer costs have reached such astronomical dimensions that even the slightest disruption (among other things) on the revenue side has caused the construct to collapse.
‚Barça is a ruin‘
This quote from Sport, a daily newspaper close to the club, stands for itself and cannot be doubted in its essence even by the dreamiest of fans. There is no more memorable way to describe Barca’s situation. Admittedly, with its gigantic club grounds in a central location and the market value of its team – which is also volatile in view of the Corona pandemic – the club has sufficient collateral. But: rescheduling the club’s debts, or even relieving them by selling players or real estate, will not reduce the mortgage for the future either. Or can anyone imagine that the environment of the proud FC Barcelona will tolerate years of sporting mediocrity in the sense of economic consolidation. Years without titles, in which the big rivals Real Madrid or the next forces in Spanish football (first and foremost Atletico Madrid) will collect trophies, while Barcelona will miss out on a place in the European Cup? Hardly. And the alternative scenario? After insolvency, that would be the forced conversion into a sports joint-stock company. A horror scenario for the proud, member-run club.
Tradition vs. commerce
But what is Barca really? An incredibly social club or the marketing machine that cultivates the social image only as a means to an end? The longer I think about it, the less clear the answer becomes. In the end, it probably depends on one’s point of view. The fan’s view will be romanticised, the neutral business expert’s much more critical. Whichever side you take, however, FC Barcelona is a prime example of how outstanding image building and marketing works. Or has worked.
Herculean task for club managers
For the knowledge of the economic behaviour of the last years/decades, including the gigantic debt level, raises many questions. One must also ask: how does economic hara-kiri fit in with the club’s image of social tradition? I say: not at all. From my point of view, the big task for the future (after securing liquidity) will be the image change from a proud club to a globally active sports group. And without losing the many traditionalists among the fans along the way. If this succeeds, then the people in charge deserve the highest respect.