“This is a disaster of unprecedented proportions, we have not seen a situation like this in bullfighting history,” said Antonio Lorca, reporting los toros for the newspaper El País. “There is even a risk that it will disappear completely.”
Bullfighting is now technically allowed again, although regional governments must impose security restrictions, such as limiting the number of people allowed to participate and ensuring social distance between them. This and the uncertainty that has prevailed all spring have led to the overwhelming majority of summer events being canceled.
This has an economic impact for event organizers, bull breeders and, of course, bullfighters, many of whom have agreed to take pay cuts when they get back to work.
According to industry estimates, there are 54,000 jobs in the sector and ANOET, the national association of bullfighting organizers, said the industry generates € 1.5 billion annually, rising to € 4 billion, taking into account the indirect impact on the economy .
Juan José Rueda, a bull breeder from the Madrid region whose family has been working in the industry for 137 years, has been hit hard. In a normal year, his farm, Sotillo Gutiérrez, would sell 120 animals for bullfighting, at a price of around € 15,000 per head. He has not sold a single bull this year.
“If there are no bullfights, the people who work exclusively in the sector have no other source of income,” he said. “It’s terrible.”
Bullfighting struggled before COVID-19. The Eurozone crisis of ten years ago brought Spain into a double dip recession, causing local subsidies – so crucial to los toros – to be cut. Meanwhile, as unemployment soared, bullfighting was one of the many luxuries the Spaniards cut back on. Although the economy recovered before the corona virus hit, the industry has never fully recovered.
In total, 3,295 bullfights were held in 2008, according to government figures. In 2018, the most recent figures availablethat number had fallen to 1,521.
Many observers attribute this decline to the fact that the industry has not adapted and has established an effective business model.
Rueda said that a lack of coordination and long-term vision in the industry means that the roles of those within the industry have faded in recent years, with organizers also working as bullfighters or breeders. This, he said, has made the industry clubby, less diverse, and lowering its quality.
‘[We need] bullfights with top-notch matadors and good bulls, to ensure a quality spectacle – which is not guaranteed today, ”he said.
In addition, there is a relative lack of star quality in arenas, which limited the appeal of this very traditional pastime. The obvious exception was José Tomás, a 44-year-old matador whose unique technique and willingness to risk life-threatening bleeding has made him an acclaimed and controversial figure in the Spanish-speaking world. But the mysterious torero has frustrated many fans due to his media embarrassment, which in the past refused to show his bullfights on television.
For an increasing number of Spaniards, such a lack of media attention is a good thing. Polls show one slim majority is now in favor of a ban on bullfighting.
Such statistics have a political dimension. Voters on the left tend against bullfighting more than on the right. In recent years, this trend has become more pronounced with the emergence of the left-wing Podemos party. Last year, Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias admitted that bullfighting was “an ancestral tradition,” but added, “This includes patriarchy and machismo.”
Several town halls affiliated with Podemos across Spain have banned or withdrawn parties that use animals, and have joined the regions of Catalonia and the Canary Islands, which have a general ban on bullfighting.
Now that Podemos is the junior coalition partner of the ruling Socialist Party (PSOE), vocal opponents of bullfighting are now in government for the first time in Spanish modern history. In practical terms, that doesn’t mean much so far: the Socialist Minister of Culture, José Manuel Rodríguez Uribes, for example, vigorously defended bullfighting against the recent criticism of Formula 1 driver Lewis Hamilton.
But the government is preparing an animal welfare law on behalf of Podemos. While there are expected to be no restrictions on bullfighting, some in the industry fear this is the form of things coming from this left-wing government.
“At a time so difficult for everyone, they are preparing an animal welfare law,” said Gómez del Pilar, a Toledo bullfighter. “Instead of worrying about all the problems caused by COVID, they worry about it.”
He added, “I always say that if bullfighting wasn’t Spanish, but if it was English or American, for example, everyone would like it. We don’t know how to get the best out of it. ‘
The far-right Vox party seems determined to fix that supposed perception problem. In addition to tackling immigration, feminism and Catalan nationalism, the party, which has become a major political force in the past 18 months, has also defended los toros as a symbol of the Spanish identity.
However, Antonio Lorca of El País believes that it is the voters who are at the forefront of this issue, not the parties.
“More relevant than Podemos is the new wave of animal rights activists campaigning effectively,” said Lorca. “Society is moving further and further away from the world of bullfighting.”
For long-term animal rights campaigners, the COVID-19 crisis seems to be a solution when it comes to impact on industry. But the animal rights party PACMA, which has no parliamentary representation, is wary.
“With or without COVID [bullfighting] dies, ”said party spokesman Ana Martín.
“But now COVID has come along and the industry has seen the opportunity to try again to get subsidies.”
A number of bullfights are now scheduled for later this summer, and organizers are hoping that some sort of normality will return towards the end of the season in early fall.
The bullfighting industry has been trying to make its voice heard in recent weeks. Protesters, wearing face masks, organized a series of protests outside the arena across the country. The short-term goal is to get financial support from the government after the healthcare crisis. But the long-term ambition of bullfighting – surviving as a sustainable industry – seems to be dying a slow death.