Lobos BUAP's first-season struggles pose a problem for Liga MX to solve
The warning signs for Lobos BUAP were there before the 2017 Apertura season started. Back on June 5 in Cancun at the Liga MX draft, the coach of the Puebla-based university club Rafa Puente was already operating under a cloud of uncertainty.
For a start, the ambitious former soap opera actor and ESPN analyst admitted he hadn't signed a contract with the club he'd just guided to promotion. On top of that, the institution was waiting to seal a TV deal in order to free up finances to sign players ahead of the June 7 domestic transfer deadline day.
But Lobos BUAP scraped together funds as the window wound down and were able to do business at the draft. Veteran 38-year-old full-back Carlos Morales was announced as the club's first new signing in the early afternoon and then, from 8:53 p.m. on, Lobos BUAP brought in 11 other players in a little over three hours, almost all on loan.
It doesn't take a genius in organizational planning to work out that constructing a squad in such a way isn't ideal, especially for a club embarking on its first campaign in Liga MX. But, surprisingly, Puente quickly got his team playing some positive football, going against the idea that promoted teams need to grind out results with ugly, pragmatic play. Under their articulate and passionate boss, Lobos BUAP always look to take the initiative, play with three defenders and attack as their principal ethos.
After an encouraging start to the season, some hastily compared Lobos BUAP's form with Leicester's charge to the Premier League title in 2016. But, perhaps inevitably given the squad's market value is roughly half of the Liga MX average, the wheels have fallen off: Lobos BUAP have won one point in five matches since Aug. 5, is now in last place in the Liga MX relegation table and favorites for the drop next May.
A highly publicized fight between two players alleged to have happened in early August seemed to disturb the peace at a club, whose average attendance so far this Apertura has been 11,621, which is higher than the 2,116 average for the Clausura regular season in the second division.
It has been a struggle for a club that, with full respect, wasn't prepared for first division football. There still isn't a TV deal in place, forcing the club to launch Lobos BUAP TV so they could broadcast last Saturday's 3-1 loss at home to Morelia for free on the internet.
Lobos BUAP also created headlines when it launched a campaign to raise funds for the purchase of new players, with fans encouraged to donate at the university that houses the club, or in local pharmacies in Puebla.
Yet all this isn't completely Lobos BUAP's fault. The problem the club has had is also partly down to how Liga MX is formatted.
TV deals are negotiated separately by each club for each territory: primarily domestic, U.S. and Latin America. Until Pachuca and Leon signed with Fox in 2012, the rights were held almost exclusively by Televisa and TV Azteca. But since there has been an opening up, with Chivas experimenting briefly with showing their home games exclusively on Chivas TV and newcomers like Grupo Imagen and Claro Sports entering the market.
Lobos BUAP announced on July 21 that it hadn't been able to come to a "fair" arrangement with Televisa, who had the exclusive rights to negotiate until week five of the 2017 Apertura. After that date, Lobos BUAP were free to negotiate with other companies but apparently haven't yet received an offer that meets their demands.
The dilemma has sparked talk of a change in the way TV deals are structured in Mexico. Pachuca president Jesus Martinez told ESPN that he'd put forward the idea of collective TV rights for the whole league, similar to what the Premier League and La Liga have. That would certainly help avoid situations like that of Lobos BUAP, although it would be difficult to broker considering that four of the 18 Liga MX teams are actually owned by media outlets.
Liga MX is in a certain amount of flux at present and not just regarding TV rights. Changes to the relegation system are also being talked about by the owners. The current system of one team going down based on its points-per-game ratio going back three years seems overly complicated and outdated.
Meanwhile, for a team to get promoted it has to win either the Ascenso MX Apertura or Clausura -- each of which has a playoff -- and then obtain victory in the showdown between the winner of each season.
The plight of Lobos BUAP is a reminder that fundamental problems remain to elevate the league's status on a global level. Looking to the U.S., recent MLS expansion franchise Atlanta United opened its new stadium last Saturday to much fanfare and is coached by former Barcelona manager Gerardo Martino. Despite the very different sporting landscapes in the United States and Canada, new teams like Atlanta and Minnesota United certainly seem more secure and better additions to their respective league than Lobos BUAP.
Closing up relegation like MLS may not be the answer for Liga MX, but the Lobos BUAP situation highlights that the current system simply isn't working for the future benefit of the league.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.