Column: Recession unleashes pain on Spanish sport

Associated Press Modified: September 26, 2012 at 11:02 am •  Published: September 26, 2012

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.

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