Column: Recession unleashes pain on Spanish sport

Associated Press + More

By JOHN LEICESTER, Associated Press

PARIS (AP) — With its array of courses and short-sleeves climate, Spain made a natural home for professional golf. In 2011, the land of Seve Ballesteros hosted seven European Tour tournaments, more than any other country.

Next year, that could plummet to just one, the Spanish Open.

Deep in recession, with unemployment near 25 percent, putting up purses to entice golf's big names is a luxury Spain can ill-afford. Government tourist boards that once bankrolled tournaments to sell Spain as a destination and companies that provided sponsorship often no longer have the money or do not want to be seen spending it on golf when Spaniards are so squeezed financially.

The $1.3 million Iberdrola Open, won in 2011 by Darren Clarke two months before his British Open victory, vanished from the Tour schedule this year, with the Madeira Islands Open in Portugal filling its slot.

Also gone are the $2.6 million Castello Masters and the $3.9 million Andalucia Masters, both won in 2011 by Sergio Garcia. Replacing them next month are the $7 million BMW Masters in Shanghai, China, and the Perth International in Australia.

The Madrid Masters, where England's Lee Slattery in 2011 got his first Tour win, was also canceled, leaving a hole in the Tour schedule last week. No replacement could be found for Bankia, the bailed-out Spanish bank that had sponsored the $1.3 million event.

"It's just tough times, really, there's no money," said Javier Gervas, CEO of MatchGolf, which promoted both Iberdrola and Castello. "Salaries are not going up, the cost of life is increasing, and people are just holding tight."

The indebted government in the eastern coastal region of Valencia, through its tourist board, was the Castello's main sponsor. The tournament got 1,500 hours of international television coverage in 2011, "pure advertising" for Spain, with enticing images of golfers playing in autumn sun in late October, Gervas said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.

But Valencia "cannot be seen spending money on a tournament, on a golf event, when people are suffering, when they are laying off people in various areas of the administration," he said.

"I do believe that golf is good for Spain and for the different regions. I just think that, at the moment, everyone has had to cut on the budgets and the sponsorship has been very easy to do (away with). You look at a chart and you say, "Right, how much are we spending here? Four million? Right, take it off.""

Golf isn't the only sport hurting in Spain, by some measures the sporting leader of Europe. Spanish driver Fernando Alonso is edging this season toward his third world championship in Formula One. But from 2013, F1 is expected to visit Spain just once a year, alternating between Barcelona and Valencia, instead of racing in both venues.

Spain's soccer players are the world and continental champions, and Real Madrid is the soccer world's most lucrative club. But other Spanish teams are so strapped for cash that they can't pay their taxes, owing some $970 million to the government.

The International Cycling Union says nine Spanish road races were canceled this year, up from five the year before. Ponferrada, the city in northwest Spain picked to host the 2014 cycling world championships, has been given until mid-October to prove to the UCI that its $19.4 million budget is still guaranteed by the central government. If not, the UCI says it will move the championships elsewhere.

"They have to show if they have the money, and that is where probably they are going to meet some difficulties," Gerrit Middag, the UCI events and marketing director, said in a phone interview. "There are alternatives and not only outside Europe. There are certain countries in Europe doing well."

A year ago, 119 golfers played the Madrid Masters, not replaced this year. At the Castello Masters, Garcia beat 112 competitors. Its replacement, the new BMW Masters in Shanghai, has a bigger prize fund but a smaller field, just 78 players.

"What is disappointing for our membership in the whole is that we have lost full-field events," said Keith Waters, the European Tour's chief operating officer and director of international policy. "The guys coming through the qualifying school in the last year have not had as many opportunities to play on the Tour this year as they have done in previous years."

The $3.6 million Volvo World Match Play Championship is leaving Spain, Waters said in a phone interview. He said he doesn't know if the $1.3 million Open de Andalucia Costa del Sol, which Julien Quesne won this March, will happen again in 2013.

Spain's only tournament currently confirmed on next year's Tour schedule is the Open de Espana next April.

"The European Tour does tend to lag the economic cycle by up to two years, so we have our really tough times two years after a recession has hit and, sometimes, even when countries come out of recession, they don't immediately start supporting sporting events," he said. "So it's not going to be easy over the next two or three years."

Because the Tour is so spread geographically, visiting 21 countries in 2012, it has been able to fill its schedule with tournaments elsewhere. South Africa has six tournaments in the first three months of the Tour's preliminary schedule for 2013, up from four in the whole of 2012.

"We've tended to lose the smaller tournaments," Waters said. "The very big international events still will have an appeal, still will have an opportunity to succeed, but anything kind of a step below that and lower, I think life is going to be very challenging in the next three or four years."

"The small events go first," he added, "and I don't see them coming back in the short term."

___

John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.