‘Barca pulling ‘levers’? Real did it first’ — Jaume Roures, the man who crosses Spain’s conflicting football worlds

On the 16th floor of an office complex in downtown Barcelona, we’re inside a meeting room that’s surrounded by glass walls and filled with trophies. This is the main headquarters of Mediapro, a Spanish communication group founded by Jaume Roures in 1994.

Maybe you haven’t heard of Roures, but there are plenty of reasons The Athletic has come to meet him.

Mediapro has won 629 awards over the last 29 years — and Roures admits special affection for the Oscar won by Woody Allen’s film Midnight in Paris, which the company produced in 2011. Working across several media sectors, Mediapro’s reported revenue in 2021 was €1.15bn (£1bn; $1.25bn)

We are here to talk about one thing in particular: football. But away from the game, Roures’ life story would probably make a compelling Netflix series.

Roures describes himself as a communist — a Trotskyist, to be precise — and in the 1960s and 1970s, he was a member of left-wing political associations in Catalonia.

In 1969, Roures spent time in jail after being accused of links with the trade union Comisiones Obreras, which was made illegal under Francisco Franco’s dictatorship in Spain. He was arrested two further times; in 1971 and in 1983, when he was accused of collaborating with the Basque terrorist group Eta. He was released without charge.

One year later, Roures started working with the newly founded Catalan public TV in the sports department, where he rose to the role of editor-in-chief.

In 1988, Roures closed the deal on an agreement between TV3 and Barcelona for their TV rights, one of the first of its kind. TV3 paid 2bn pesetas (worth about €57m in today’s money) and, according to Roures, the funds “were used to build Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona”. In 2017, he described it as “the first big deal for a club in Spain”, adding that “since that moment, everything related to TV rights changed completely”.

Roures built a close bond with Cruyff — who had become the Barcelona manager in 1988 — to the extent that he became the Dutchman’s personal advisor.

Following Cruyff’s death in 2016, Roures was involved in launching the Johan Cruyff Foundation. Through this role, he strengthened his connection with the current Barcelona president Joan Laporta.

So why is Roures, 73, the most important person in Spanish football you’ve never heard of?

With the relationships he has and the power he enjoys over conflicting spheres, he is a unique figure within the game.

His TV channels have broadcast the World Cup, La Liga and Champions League. When Mediapro acquired TV rights for La Liga in 2007, it involved a controversial legal battle with rivals Prisa in what was labelled ‘The Football War’.

Today, Movistar is Spain’s main football broadcaster. Yet, Mediapro works closely with Movistar on production and still manages La Liga’s international TV rights.

Due to his work with Mediapro, and their relationship with La Liga, Roures is a close partner of La Liga president Javier Tebas, who has clashed with Laporta in the past. Roures describes Tebas as “a friend”.

In recent years, Roures has collaborated with Real Madrid president Florentino Perez, too — but more on that later.

Roures is not close to everyone, though — especially not with the former Barcelona presidents Josep Maria Bartomeu and Sandro Rosell. The latter was involved in a long legal dispute in which Roures accused Rosell of spying on him and gathering “over 14,000” personal emails. In 2020, Spanish courts found Rosell not guilty.

Now, Roures enjoys great influence at Barcelona once more. His ally Laporta is in charge — and Roures helped him get there as part of the bank guarantee Laporta needed to complete his return as club president in 2021.

In August 2022 came an even more significant development.

One of Roures’ companies, Orpheus Media, bought a 24.5 per cent share of Barca Studios for €100m. It was popularly known as the ‘fourth lever’ that Barcelona ‘pulled’ to register all the players they signed that summer.

The subject of that ‘lever’ is where we start our interview. But this was a conversation that took in lots more, including:

  • Why the European Super League “won’t exist, end of story”, despite Barca’s “surprising” support
  • Why La Liga “has a responsibility” for Barca’s financial struggles
  • Why Barca players who signed new contracts before the club’s problems “should not be discredited” for not renegotiating
  • Why bringing the Champions League final to New York “would be a great idea”, and why UEFA should reduce its revenue share and give more to clubs as a counter to the European Super League
  • Why clubs looking to increase revenue through “impossible ideas like an All-Star match in the Premier League” should “probably just spend less instead”

Roures: “The term ‘levers’ is something the media, La Liga and others have used, but practically it’s the same as what Florentino Perez did when he became Real Madrid president in 2000, from the sale of executive boxes to their image rights, where we at Mediapro got involved. And, of course, what happened with their training facilities. With all this money, Madrid were able to create a good team, the Galacticos, and start a rebuilding process.”

Here, we need a little explainer.

In 2004, Mediapro bought a 12.5 per cent share to exploit Real Madrid’s image rights. Another 7.5 per cent was sold to the bank Caja Madrid. In 2014, when their financial situation was stabilised, Madrid bought back the 20 per cent for €29m when both companies still had two more years to exploit the rights.

The biggest talking point was what happened with Madrid’s training facilities in 2001. Madrid had a piece of land in Paseo La Castellana — next to the Santiago Bernabeu — where the first team and youth sides used to train. When Perez became president, he managed to switch the category of the land, from it being designated for sporting use to land available for building development, thanks to the cooperation of the city council. The same city council bought the land for €500m. All these operations enabled Real Madrid to solve their long-term debt (estimated at around €276m), build new training facilities and fund the Galacticos era.

Roures: “Barcelona now are trying to assemble a team to put themselves on the same track, which they’re doing despite some results not going their way. Hope is coming back to the club: the stadium is full week-in week-out, shirt sales are at phenomenal levels… Barcelona is slowly going back to where they should be.

“There’s a worldwide interest in Barcelona — that’s a fact. The main difference they have compared to Premier League clubs is only they don’t have an owner behind (them) to put money in. In England, the partners of the clubs are millionaires who contribute with funding. Maybe you could call that their ‘lever’, too.

“But I don’t think there are many more things to be done from the Barcelona perspective. Some decisions can be handled in a better way or even worse, I’m sure, but the only path to get themselves out of the mud is the one they’re following.”

This answer hints at a difference in how La Liga, led by Roures’ collaborator Javier Tebas, might see the state of play at Barca.

In November, La Liga announced new rules on the club’s salary limits. The biggest tweak was to limit asset sales allowed per window and, crucially, a change that means they no longer will be taken into account when calculating what Barca’s salary limit will be in the summer.

Roures: “I’ve been surprised by the changes La Liga has made on this. It looks a bit out of place in my opinion and I can’t see the reasoning behind it. If Barcelona hadn’t made any effort towards reducing their wage bill, then I would understand if La Liga decided to reprimand them. But if they are doing all they can until reaching a line they can’t cross? What else do La Liga want?

“I don’t think there are many more measures to be taken, because you can’t fire a football player in the same way a company can fire one of their workers. Barcelona can try to renegotiate contracts in their squad, of course. But I understand the point of view of players. They can’t be discredited if they don’t want to lower their wages, it’s absolutely understandable.

“It is quite evident Barcelona needs to lower their wage bill. But Lionel Messi is not at the club anymore, Gerard Pique’s retired, along the way some other players have also left — let’s see what happens with Sergio Busquets this summer. No one can dispute Barcelona have been doing their work.

“The asset sales were something La Liga suggested to Barcelona from the first minute when Laporta came back. I’m surprised they want to put a limit on this. I don’t get it. It is a very legitimate form of doing business.

“The contracts that are choking Barcelona the most are the deferrals or extensions (that the) former president Bartomeu signed just before resigning. Some of them even increased previous figures. La Liga approved and accepted those contracts back in the day, which makes this a shared problem with all parts.”

This is Roures aiming criticism at Tebas, who is seen within Barcelona as somebody who has made it tougher to fix their immediate financial problems. Barca also believe Tebas failed to submit the club’s previous leadership to the same strict financial scrutiny that they are facing now.

Frenkie de Jong, Clement Lenglet, Marc-Andre ter Stegen and Gerard Pique all signed contract extensions in October 2020 under Bartomeu. One week later, Bartomeu resigned as president. La Liga approved them all. Last summer, Barcelona sources, who wished to remain anonymous to protect their position, told The Athletic the impact of those extensions on the club’s salary bill was around €311m.

Next, the conversation turned to the European Super League. Roures was as bold as you might expect…

Roures: “This is a meaningless discussion. This Super League won’t exist — end of story. I don’t think this has a lot to do with what the court in Luxembourg decides now. The bottom line is this Super League can’t launch a new competition because they don’t have the teams for it. But, most importantly, they haven’t worked on anything other than announcing it very loudly.”

Roures went to Madrid at the end of last year to attend an event hosted by A22 Sports Management, the company behind the Super League. He sat there and listened. His opinion did not change much.

Roures: “What do they say? I don’t think they really know. They claim they are good guys and that young people’s habits towards watching football have changed, but I also can prove with daily numbers of TV audiences that young people follow football and, actually, the number of young fans keeps increasing. The day they announce a big deal with, I don’t know, Amazon or any huge TV operator, maybe something will change. But when you see the lack of sponsorships and what they did at El Chiringuito…  if I were them, I would invest my time in something else.”

The mention of Spanish football television program El Chiringuito de Jugones is a direct dig at Madrid president Perez, who talked about setting up the European Super League project on air back in April 2021. Roures also admitted the topic has come up several times with Barca president Laporta, who in December 2022 said “football needs the Super League”.

Need a refresher on the European Super League?

Roures: “I discuss it very often with Joan Laporta. It’s all surreal. Laporta says what he says on record but those words do not have a foundation to rely on. At the start of all the Super League process, there was, apparently, a big loan from JP Morgan. That’s fine, but as I was saying, any loan must be paid back. After this, it was said that clubs would get €300m just by being part of the competition. It’s impossible! This money does not exist in the industry.

“Who is giving money — not a loan — to the clubs? Is it going to be sponsors? TV operators? We speak to every big TV operator in the world every day because that’s our job, and there is no one who’s described the Super League as an appealing project with huge figures.

“As a business model, it only makes sense if you believe you’ll win every year, and no team wins every year. Just to give an example: Barcelona can play against Liverpool at the Camp Nou, but if Barcelona ranks, let’s say ninth, in a hypothetical Super League, this game might not have any appeal at all.

“On TV rights, Juventus earns right now around €80m. Bayern, around €80-90m. PSG, less than that. If you are Barcelona, Real Madrid or any English top team who earns around €160m, why would you want to enrich your direct rivals? It doesn’t make any sense. You are strengthening your opponents when you, as a club, have fought for years to be in this position, in a league that will earn you €160m.

“If you are Madrid or Barcelona, who plead for the Super League, what interest do they have in Bayern going from getting €80m per year to the figures they mention? Especially when Bayern, without all this money, has managed to batter you (Barcelona) on the pitch over the last few years.”

Our interview took place the day after Xavi lifted his first trophy as Barcelona manager — the Supercopa de Espana, beating Real Madrid 3-1. It was the perfect ending for all the fans in Riyadh who desperately wanted to see a Clasico in the final. Saudi Arabia paid €40m to host the competition.

Roures: “Those games take place because of the economic profit. It is sweetened with the narrative that it helps social development in those countries when it’s pretty blatant that if you really wanted to promote that then the figures of the deal would not be that big.

“Here, we have to distinguish between two different things. On the one hand, we have a football association, or a national league, taking advantage of the context and getting the best deal out of wealthy countries. This is a simple economic transaction.

“But then there are strategic lines of development for football on an international scale. There was a moment in which UEFA considered setting up a Champions League final in New York. In that context, an idea of this kind would fit and make sense. Apart from promoting football in the United States, it would be a showcase of the irradiating force that the Champions League, the biggest competition in European football, has in the world.

“For the fans, it is more complicated to get to Saudi Arabia than going to New York for a Champions League final.”

Paris Saint-Germain president Nasser Al-Khelaifi, who is also president of the European Club Association, said in an interview with The Athletic that he “can’t understand why the Super Bowl is “bigger” than the Champions League final” and suggested “having an opening ceremony to the Champions League” to “challenge the status quo”. At the same time, Chelsea’s owner Todd Boehly said last year he thought a Premier League All-Star match, similar to the NBA model, could make sense.

Roures: “Now the Champions League will evolve to a new format that, theoretically, by having more games between historical teams will produce more money. But here there’s a deeper discussion and it is how this money is distributed.

“Right now, UEFA keeps a 25 per cent share of the income. That seems mad to me. If instead, it were let’s say, 10 per cent there is suddenly 15 per cent more money to distribute. Now the Champions League is producing around €3.5bn. They estimate it to be around €4.5bn with the new format. That would €450m to UEFA, which is a lot of money, and distribute the rest among the clubs.

“Instead of making up impossible ideas such as an All-Star, or a Super Bowl, what clubs should probably do is spend less.”

Speaking of spending less, UEFA recommends a maximum of 70 per cent of a club’s revenue should be spent on players’ wages. In 2021, Laporta stated Barca’s wage bill represented 110 per cent of expected revenues. There have been doubts over whether Laporta can economically sustain the club’s current fan-owned model. In November, he said: “Barcelona will not be a private company while I’m managing this club.” At Real Madrid, they have raised membership prices.

Roures: “Here in Barcelona, there has again been a lot of populism around the issue, saying that the club would only raise membership prices according to inflation. This has been said just to get votes, but it has nothing to do with management. In fact, this could be regarded as ‘anti-management’.”

Mediapro’s CEO is, of course, a big advocate of La Liga. He believes its commercial appeal is as alive as it has ever been. The comparisons with the Premier League, though, will never cease.

Roures: “The only national competitions to grow in Europe are the Premier League and La Liga. And the Premier League, if I’m not wrong, signed a three-year extension for similar figures to their previous TV deal. Meanwhile, their international rights, as in every competition in the world, were sold for less money. Therefore, growth is not that big.

“I felt bad with Lionel Messi leaving, of course. Without Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, we have signed TV deals until 2026, 2028 or 2030 and everyone who buys knows Messi is not here anymore, and that he won’t come back.

“What appeals to the world is the brand of a competition where, obviously, the duality of Barcelona vs Real Madrid is big. But you don’t get millions of euros to offer two games per year. Another thing is that El Clasico is the main engine La Liga has, and we have to use it, for sure. Here we want to sell a competition, which is what the Premier League has done, and in a very successful way. Because if you look at it, the Premier League does not have huge stars.”

What about Erling Haaland, then? Manchester City, for various reasons, beat Real Madrid to the signing of the most-coveted striker in the world.

Roures: “That is true. But it just happened now. Actually, I don’t know why they don’t convince big players more often. I’m surprised by the fact Kylian Mbappe was negotiating with Real Madrid (and) not Premier League clubs because now it seems like if you want to succeed from a sporting angle you need to go to the United Kingdom. But it didn’t look like they were able to tempt him.

“Players still see La Liga as one of the best representations of football in the world. Robert Lewandowski was at Bayern Munich and received an incredible proposal from PSG to play alongside Mbappe. But he became obsessed about coming to Barcelona, knowing the situation the club is in. Well, that’s what they have.

“I don’t know how I would explain this to someone from abroad, but it’s a reality. Now they have Pep Guardiola, but when have Man City been a topic of discussion as they are now? No one recognised in them a historical pedigree. That’s character; things you build with years. We can go to the last Champions League, at the Real Madrid vs Man City game. That’s the extra character that goes along with a historical club, and players value it.

“Will it change in the long-term in favour of the English clubs? Maybe. But they will need to win, offer good entertainment and make football better, which is the blueprint of any European great.”

(Top photo: Mediapro; design by Sam Richardson)

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