Spanish football needs more fan focus, not later kick-offsThe Spanish season usually kicks off on the last weekend of August or the first weekend of September. It makes sense. Most Spanish cities close down for August, with businesses shut and people heading to the sea breezes of the coast or the cooler air of the mountains. The best players, who spend three out of every four summers excelling in the World Cup, European Championship or Confederations Cup, also appreciate the break.
Not so this year: the season was brought forward to accommodate a bigger football calendar. The change was disastrous. Barcelona's crowd of 57,721 against Real Sociedad was their lowest league attendance for four years and 20,000 short of the opening fixture last season, with a yawning 41,000 empty seats.
With Thursday night's Spanish Super Cup first leg against Real Madrid following Monday's Joan Gamper Trophy game against Sampdoria — that's a pre-season curtain raiser which actually started after the season proper - Barca fans were unlikely to shell out for all three, especially as many are still on holiday. Even the Madrid game has not sold out, but the vacant seats at the other grounds were more telling.
Just 20,000, half last season's average, saw Sevilla play at home to Getafe. The temperature in the stadium was 37 degrees Celsius. At least the fans got a sauna in the giant bowl at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan.
In La Coruna, Deportivo fans held up a huge banner telling the LFP, the Spanish equivalent of the FA: "We hate modern football, we hate television."
At Rayo Vallecano, a club with a strong left-wing working-class following, the players walked out to the backdrop of a giant banner with a message criticising the lawyer who negotiated the television contract for 30 of the clubs across Spain's top two divisions. Some clubs allege that they've not even been paid the money owed to them by the television companies.
But the worst attendance was the meagre 11,000 turning up to watch Zaragoza against Valladolid. There were other reasons for this: despite most of the clubs in the top flight protesting, Spanish games now kick off at nine different time slots over a weekend, starting at 6pm on Saturday and finishing at the new 'summer' slot of 11pm on Monday night. Yes, pm - you read that right. Zaragoza, who can easily attract crowds of 30,000, were told to play in that slot on Monday and the fans protested either by not showing up or by booing and waving banners.
Two other teams who kicked off at 11pm recorded dreadful crowds, with just 11,703 watching Mallorca v Espanyol and 14,295 watching Levante against Atletico Madrid, a pre-season crowd for a proper-season game. Two teams in England's third tier, Sheffield United and Portsmouth, attracted far higher crowds at the weekend.
Spaniards are used to staying up late and Madrid's bars only start to get busy at 11pm in the summer, but football matches which finish the following day are unfeasible for families or people who have to work. The authorities, who advertise the league as the best in the world, won't be using shots of rows of unoccupied seats (40 per cent of them were empty across the stadiums last weekend, 53 per cent across the three stadiums which hosted 11pm games) to advertise their product.
The attendances show the patience has snapped for many Spanish fans who are struggling to deal with the economic crisis in the country.
Many of the players were reluctant to speak out against the league, but Valencia's new Portuguese right-back Joao Pereira said: "In Portugal it's considered late if a game kicks off at 9.15pm. 11pm is bad for the fans. The game finishes at a time when people should be sleeping. How can a child of 10 years old go to a game at that time? It's not good for football."
Pereira was Valencia's most expensive summer signing at just £3 million, proof that even the big clubs are struggling.
Spanish football needs to improve its dire relations with fans. Games are switched around and only announced eight days before. It's almost impossible for a travelling fan to make plans, but such considerations go unheard where the television contracts are unfairly skewed towards the big two. The top duo get £100m a year, the next biggest two — Atletico and Valencia - get £35m and the smallest clubs just £12m. That has been a long-standing gripe, but the new TV schedules are unfair against the weaker clubs, who get the more unfavourable slots.
That said, Barca and Madrid kick-off at 10.30pm tomorrow night.
Andy Mitten will be blogging for us on all matters in La Liga throughout the season. He contributes to FourFourTwo, the Manchester Evening News and GQ magazine amongst other publications.