Cristobal Reyes, 15, left, trains with Miguel Andrades, 17, right center, and Mercedes San Roman Mateos, 16, far right, at the municipal bullfighting school in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain. (Matt McClain/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Under the fierce Andalusian sun, a class of novice matadors strode into an empty bullfighting ring, arching and flourishing through moves meant to slay a beast in its tracks. Yet during their breaks, the teenagers spoke of an adversary in their path to glory even greater than a raging toro:

Europe’s economic crisis.

In Spain, the plot of man against beast captured by Ernest Hemingway is now one of a sport struggling against the financial odds. In a time of harsh government austerity, cash-strapped municipalities across Spain are abandoning financial support for festivals involving bullfights and running of bulls, disrupting a chain of economic activity from breeders and transporters to costume makers and bullfighters.

Amid plummeting demand, more fighting bull breeders are dispatching their stocks to the butcher rather than the spectacle of the ring. In increasingly hard times, bullfight organizers are engaged in highly public disputes with matadors and creditors over wages and overdue payments. One of the most publicized fights has kept the form-fitted silhouette of Julián López Escobar — the star matador known as “El Juli” — out of Madrid’s Las Ventas bullfighting ring for the better part of a year.

Tickets to privately sponsored bullfights have long cost as much as a rock concert. But prices jumped even higher last year after the government hiked the sales tax on cultural events. In a country where a debt crisis, budget cuts and an ever-worsening real estate bust has left one out of every four Spaniards out of work, industry officials say higher prices have only exacerbated the 40 percent drop in attendance at major bullfighting events from 2007 to 2012.

Spanish bullfighting was already stung by growing opposition among animal rights activists as well as a ban on the sport that went into effect last year in the autonomous region of Catalonia, where anti-bullfighting feelings run deeper than anywhere else in Spain. But the strain of the economic crisis on the industry, bullfighting advocates say, has been far more deadly. Last year, the total number of major bullfights fell to 1,014 — a 51 percent drop since 2007, according to industry statistics.

The crisis, aficionados here say, is underscoring the extent to which Europe’s economic woes are goring a hole in the national identities of the region’s hardest-hit countries. Among traditionalists, bullfighting — a dance to the death between man and beast — remains the highest expression of Spanish sport, with a cult of celebrity surrounding the biggest-name matadors. Voraciously covered by bloggers and sports writers, leading matadors can pull in six-digit purses for major bouts and regularly compete with soccer stars for tabloid ink.

Although the largest events in Madrid and Pamplona still draw large crowds, bullfights in smaller towns and mid-size cities such as Jerez de la Frontera are becoming increasingly rare.

“Bullfighting is confronting a crisis from Spain’s financial difficulties,” said Sandra Moscoso, a 27-year-old with a crushing grip who beat the odds in a macho sport by rising to the top ranks of this nation’s professional matadors. Yet the declining number of bullfights has led her to follow other professional Spanish bullfighters who are now largely competing in Latin America. Three years ago, she found work at five major bouts in Spain, compared with only one last year.

In this city long famed for its sherry but now plagued by a host of empty storefronts and “For Sale” signs on apartment buildings, she watched from the wings as her 18-year-old brother — eager to follow in her footsteps — kicked up the dirt as he trained hard in the still-intense heat an hour before sunset.

“It was hard for me,” she said, “but every year with the crisis, it’s getting harder to find fights in Spain, and it’s going to be even harder for him now.”

‘National patrimony’ bill

Equally alarmed about the future of the sport is the center-right government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, which is supporting a bill that would declare bullfighting part of Spain’s “national patrimony” and potentially undermine Catalonia’s ban on bullfights. The government is also studying other ways to boost the sport, including funneling more resources into promotion, reversing the recent sales-tax increase on tickets as well as state aid for struggling young bullfighters in training.

“Everyone involved in our great national pastime is being impacted,” said Carlos Núñez, head of Spain’s Bull Breeders Association, who recently sat in a drawing room on his ranch, decorated with bovine horns and sepia posters of great bullfights past. “When we sell a bull to the butcher, we’re getting” $750 a head. That’s compared, he said, with $1,350 to $20,000 per bull typically fetched for fights.

Animal rights groups say the bad economy has driven home the point that bullfights should no longer take up the resources of small cities and towns that still spend millions of euros annually to subsidize such events.

“The crisis has helped our cause,” said Aida Gascón, director of the animal rights group AnimaNaturalis in Madrid. “There are more people who have decided to stop going to bullfights, and it’s been harder for breeders to raise fighting bulls. The industry is getting desperate.”

Uptick in enrollment

Here in Jerez de la Frontera, the cash-strapped city government is sponsoring only three bullfights this year, fewer than in years past. Nevertheless, the municipal bullfighting school has seen an uptick in the number of students enrolling, mostly from newcomers with socially depressed backgrounds.

“In times like these, their dreams of escaping their lives, of helping their families through success in the ring, only gets stronger,” said Antonio Lozano, 53, the school’s director who, as a professional in the 1970s and 1980s, once challenged bulls in some of Spain’s greatest arenas.

On a recent afternoon, Lozano barked critiques as half his students moved theatrically with capes and swords while the other half played the bull with horns in hands.

One of his students, Antonio Moscoso, 18, said that even now, it was not in the spirit of the sport to give up.

“Because of the crisis, I know it will be harder,” said Moscoso, who grew up with posters of great matadors pinned to his bedroom wall and was inspired by his sister to try to go pro. “But there is nothing like the feeling I get in my stomach when I stand in front of the bull. This just means I have to try harder, and not give up.”