On the afternoon of August 13, around 877,000 television viewers tuned in to live coverage of a bullfight headlined by Enrique Ponce. The corrida took place in San Sebastián, which was hosting its first fight in three years. The decision to restore bullfighting to the Basque city’s annual summer festivities was taken by the ruling Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), the center-right group that replaced the left-wing, pro-independence Bildu party at municipal elections last May.
The decision makes San Sebastián one of the few places in Spain to bring back the activity after the elections, which brought many cities under the control of new political formations opposed to bullfighting. This fact puts a question mark over future political and institutional support for what traditionalists call the Fiesta Nacional (the national fiesta). Since 2007, the number of bullfights held in Spain has dropped from 953 to 398 in 2014, according to the Culture Ministry.
There is no loss of interest. The recent drop is due solely to the recession” Ignacio Lloret, bullring manager
The bullfighting sector plays down the 60-percent drop and largely blames the long economic slump: “Just like other cultural activities, we have been affected by the crisis,” says Carlos Núñez, president of the Union of Fighting Bull Breeders (UCTL).
But animal rights groups say the decline is terminal: “We are seeing the beginning of the end of corridas,” replies José Enrique Zaldívar, president of Avatma, an organization that represents vets opposed to bullfighting.
“This drop shows that there is no interest among the general public in this activity,” adds Silvia Barquero, head of Pacma, a small political party that lobbies against cruelty to animals.
Animal rights groups point out that between 2003 and 2005, when the country was still enjoying an economic boom, bullfighting was already on the wane, with the number of corridas falling from 850 to 781 during that time. They say that a 2011 survey of cultural interests in Spain showed that only 8.5 percent of Spaniards attended a bullfight that year, down from 9.8 percent in 2007. They add that attempts to bring bullfighting back to state broadcaster TVE have been a “failure” – the number of viewers fell to below one million for the first time this August and audience share was around 10 percent, far below the 14.6 percent who watched the last bullfight transmitted by TVE in 2006.
“Changes after the elections open the way to end bullfighting”
Over the last four years, the ruling Popular Party has lent its support to bullfighting, giving it the status of a cultural asset, as well as creating a committee of experts to address the problems it faces; putting bullfighting back on public television; setting up an international conference; and asking Unesco to give it World Heritage status. Meanwhile, the PP-run regional government of Valencia has given bullfighting associations a say on environmental matters.
The PP also wants to pass a law that aims to save Spain's intangible cultural heritage, which would allow the government to take "safeguarding measures" to protect such assets. Animal rights groups, the Socialist Party and Catalan nationalist parties say the move is part of a strategy to re-establish bullfighting in Catalonia, which was banned by the regional government there in 2011, although other events involving bulls are still allowed.
“The PP is the only party that supports these measures,” says José Enrique Zaldívar, head of vets-against-bullfighting association Avatma. “But the elections open the way to change that could lead to the end of bullfighting.”
Madrid’s new mayor, Manuela Carmena of the left-wing Podemos group, has said that City Hall will no longer provide any financial support for the capital’s bullfighting school. Newly elected councils in around a dozen towns and cities have suggested holding referendums on whether to ban bullfighting.
Nevertheless, bullfighting aficionados insist that the sport remains as popular as ever: “There is no loss of interest,” says Ignacio Lloret, the manager of the municipal bullrings of Alicante, Valencia and Zaragoza. “The economic boom had no solid economic basis and coincided with a property boom. The recent drop is due solely to the recession.”
His assertion is supported by Mar Gutiérrez, the technical secretary of the National Association of Bullfight Organizers (Anoet), who has put together a report on the economic impact of bullfighting. She says that bullfighting generated around €3.5 billion in 2014, noting that attendance at bullfights increased by almost five percent in 2006 to around six million people. “The sector is making a comeback,” she says.
The Culture Ministry’s own figures suggest this is the case. “Last year, there was a mild recovery in the total number of professional bull events – which doesn’t just include bullfights, but other practices such as becerradas [using calves], novilladas [fights involving trainee matadors], and humorous bullfights, thus halting the trend of recent years.”
But the growth in question was 0.5 percent: in total there were 1,858 events involving bulls in 2013, and 1,868 the following year. The increase was largely accounted for by small events, while the number of corridas continued to fall from 428 to last year’s 398.
Spain’s Union of Fighting Bull Breeders says 1.6 million tickets were sold to corridas in the first half of 2015, a 6.5-percent increase from the same period in 2014. At the end of 2013, the ruling Popular Party (PP) voted through a motion in Congress declaring bullfighting a protected Asset of Cultural Interest, defending the initiative partly on the grounds that the sport generates around €350 million in sales tax, along with around 200,000 jobs.
But opponents of bullfighting question these figures. “When they calculate the economic impact of a bullfight, they introduce hotel occupancy into the equation, as though everybody staying in a town during local festivities were there to see the bulls,” says Zaldívar.
The bullfighting sector recognizes that it has lost ground to animal rights groups in the battle for public support. It is now doing all it can to garner political backing.
“The bullfighting world has been inward-looking,” insists Iñigo Fraile, secretary of the bullfighters’ union. “We can’t just wait for things to happen. We have to mobilize.”
It’s a stance backed by the ruling PP, which has issued a National Plan to Develop and Protect Bullfighting: “There is a communication problem in countering the political and social pressure of opponents, which draws on a certain awareness in society about the need to protect animals.”