Ask any true soccer fan which team is the best in the world right now and anyone not from England or Madrid will say FC Barcelona, a team led by superstar striker Lionel Messi that’s fighting hard to take a second consecutive Champions League title this May. Ask the same question in the Catalonia region of Spain and you’ll get a slightly more emphatic response.
“FC Barcelona is a miracle,” says Javier Faus, economic vice president for the team and one of the devoutest of the devout faithful. After all, reminds the man responsible for keeping the team profitable, Barça is més que un club—more than a club. It’s a sociedad civil (like a nonprofit) that has grown to become the most international representation of Catalan culture and society.
It’s also among the most successful top-tier sports organizations of recent times, having won four of the last six Spanish titles, along with three Champions Leagues, two FIFA Club World Cups, one Copa del Rey and five Supercopas. Such a record has helped Barcelona climb to the third spot on our annual valuations of the world’s soccer teams, with a worth estimated at US$1.31 billion—more than all but three NFL teams.
But mystique is expensive. Unlike, say, Jerry Jones and the Dallas Cowboys, Barcelona’s management must continue to increase revenue (currently an incredible US$653 million) to stay competitive, yet satisfy the stubborn whims of the team’s 177,246 socios, club members who elect top management and clamor for victory at any cost but balk at such philistine ideas as ads on jerseys or selling the naming rights to Camp Nou, their beloved 99,354-seat stadium.
“Some socios are really conservative,” says Mario Oliveto, a sports marketing expert and former executive at Nike and Adidas. “They don’t understand numbers.” As cheap money fueled property prices, Spain went on a borrowing binge in the last decade. Barcelona and other clubs did, too, taking out loans backed by appreciating real estate assets and spending big for international talent. When the financial crisis popped the bubble, teams were left with massive contractual obligations and huge holes in their balance sheets.
Barça went from “zero debt in 1995 to about US$612 million in 2010,” says Faus. The load began to ease in 2010, when the current leadership took over. They shaved off $109 million with aggressive cost-cutting, and by capping player salaries. Faus’ next goal is to take the club’s net-debt-to-Ebitda ratio down from the current 3.2 to 1.5 over the next couple of years.
That will mean more wrenching change for a club obsessed with tradition. For the first time, Barça signed a controversial jersey sponsorship deal with the Qatar Foundation, worth about US$43.5 million a season. Financial logic calls for building a new stadium (¡maldita sea!), selling naming rights and scheduling games earlier in the day in order to capture Asian markets.
All of which conflicts badly with the fans’ beloved status quo. The club’s lucrative TV broadcast deal with media distribution company MediaPro is another problem. Thanks to their overwhelming negotiating power, Barça and archrival Real Madrid split about half of the US$870 million MediaPro spends to air Spanish soccer.
The other 18 clubs in the first division league fight over the remainder—making paupers of the competition. “Teams are part of a larger product that’s called a league,” scolds Oliveto. “Unless all clubs in Spain can collectively raise their revenues, then the product becomes unsustainable.”
Faus shrugs off the criticism. He’s not worried. Business is booming, and Barça, after all, is far more than a business.
“Our romantic vision of soccer and our club is by no means dead,” he says, adding, “Everyone in the world envies the Barca model.” On the field? Absolutely. In the boardroom? Probably not
This story appears in the May 7 edition of Forbes Magazine as the feature of 2012 Forbes Soccer Team Valuations list.