BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Barcelona fans and athletes gathered in front of Camp Nou stadium on Thursday to protest the elimination of the club's 80-year-old baseball team and the decision to slash funding for 12 minority sports teams.
About a hundred adult and children players from a variety of Barcelona's amateur sports teams held a long banner in support of the endangered baseball team that read: "Don't think about the season, think about the history: 80 years."
"The feeling is one of shock," FC Barcelona pitcher and first baseman Jason Friedman, a Chicago native, told The Associated Press. "Until this point it felt very secure, we felt that baseball was important to the club. ... It has been a real blow to us."
Barcelona has long prided itself on being "more than a club," partly by supporting sports teams other than soccer. But the heralded club is also deeply in debt.
It owes more than $531 million and lost more than $30 million last season, despite winning the Champions League and Spanish league titles and implementing cost-control measures.
To tighten its belt further, the club plans to reduce the funding of its minority sports teams from 10 percent to 5 percent of its total budget over the next five years.
According to the club, Barcelona's minority sports ran a deficit of $63.5 million last season. The largest losses came from the highly successful professional basketball, handball, indoor football and roller hockey teams. The club's amateur teams— field hockey, volleyball, rugby, wheelchair basketball, athletics, skating, ice hockey and baseball — lost $4.09 million.
"Barca can't continue to lose money," Barcelona vice president Javier Faus said Wednesday. "If (soccer player Javier) Mascherano takes a pay cut to come to play for Barca and if we almost lost Dani Alves, why shouldn't we ask the minority sports teams to make a sacrifice?"
It's still a difficult decision to accept for the club's 1,200 amateur athletes.
The soccer team has been allocated at least $65 million, roughly the equivalent of the minority sports teams' deficit, to make one or two big signings. The amateur athletes say that their collective costs do not even reach half a percent of the total club budget.
The club's amateur teams, which until now competed throughout Spain, will be limited to the Catalonia region. Many will therefore have to compete in a lower division.
At least they're still playing. That won't be the case for baseball.
Friedman, who is in his third season with Barcelona, teaches English classes during the morning and arrives 90 minutes before practice along with his teammates to coach the kids that make up the club's five little league baseball teams, which will also be eliminated.
"Some of the things that the club has been insinuating, like that these guys go back home each summer and play for the Yankees, is not the case," Friedman said. "These are very humble guys who represent Barca on the field.
"It is a real shame, especially from the stance that this was more than a club, being multi-sport and giving back to the community. Personally, the hardest part is that I think a lot of the kids are going to have to stop playing."
Barcelona said it would try to place as many kids as possible with other clubs.
While baseball is largely ignored in the soccer-crazed country, it has been played in Spain as an organized sport since 1944 and has always had a dedicated — albeit low profile — fan base in the industrialized Catalonia region. Presently, 10 teams play in Spain's top division.
"Baseball is a minority sport in Spain, but it has a lot of history," said Luis Melero, a spokesman for the Spanish baseball and softball federation. "Losing a team with the renown of Barca is very bad for Spanish and European baseball."
Barcelona's baseball team has won three Spanish championships and established itself as one of the top teams in Europe, winning back-to-back continental championships in 2007 and '08.
At least the team has a chance to go out on a high note by winning its first Spanish league title since 1954. It currently sits atop the standings at 22-2 with 10 games to play.
"Our coach told us the biggest statement we can make is to win the championship," Friedman said, "and show what a good team we are."