LaLiga continues international charm offensive as US match divides opinion
By Callum Murray
LaLiga, the body representing the 20 teams in Spanish soccer’s top division (LaLiga Santander) and the 22 teams in the second division (LaLiga 123), continued its international charm offensive with a media event in London, where commercial and marketing chiefs of the clubs were holding a meeting, with the aim of “learning from other competitions and best practice around the world.”
LaLiga last month announced a 15-year tie-up with Relevent Sports, the organiser of the International Champions Cup, the multi-continent pre-season exhibition tournament, to launch LaLiga North America, a New York-based 50-50 joint venture to promote soccer in USA and Canada.
This will entail annual LaLiga games in USA, the first time such fixtures have been held outside Spain, with an initial match between Girona and Barcelona being lined up to take place in Miami on 26 January next year.
However, the proposal has been highly controversial, with Gianni Infantino, the president of Fifa, soccer’s world governing body, the latest to speak out against it, saying that North America's Major League Soccer should be given priority in USA. He told ESPN: “I think I would prefer to see a great MLS game in the U.S. rather than La Liga being in the U.S.
“In football, the general principle is that you play a ‘home’ match at ‘home’, and not in a foreign country.”
Infantino also pointed out that LaLiga would need to discuss such a proposal with Uefa, the European governing body, the US soccer authorities and itself, saying: “There are procedures in place for these things, so we will wait to receive anything official and then we'll look into it.
“There are rules and regulations that everyone complies with. In particular, such a proposal has to be approved by the respective associations, by the respective confederations, and Fifa should also express a view on the matter, not least since it would have implications for football at global level as well.”
However, Javier Tebas, president of LaLiga, responded on Twitter, saying: “I will remind the president of Fifa that in the MLS three teams from Canada play and Toronto FC are the current champions, and in Canada there is a professional league.”
At yesterday's media event, Keegan Pierce, one of 43 members of LaLiga’s ‘Global Network’ of international delegates, sought to play down the match proposal somewhat, saying that it had to be seen in the context of a long-term agreement with Relevent.
"The goal of this agreement is promoting LaLiga. At the core of the agreement it’s about increasing the value of LaLiga’s operations in that part of the world. Among the elements is an opportunity for LaLiga regular-season matches to be played. But it’s not mandatory. It’s being put forward as an opportunity. We’re hoping it can be made a reality, but it’s important to emphasise it’s part of a much larger agreement.”
The proposal has divided opinion among the clubs and players, with representatives from all 20 top-tier teams having met in Madrid last month to discuss the issue with David Aganzo, president of AFE, the players’ union, who said: “We are tired of these unilateral decisions that directly affect the players, like this plan of playing outside Spain.”
Representatives of three top-tier clubs present in London all responded cautiously to the proposal. Ramon Loarte Hernandez, marketing director of Sevilla, said: “It’s nice that there’s huge demand from the US. We’re glad to receive this type of desire to play either an official or friendly match while we’re creating soccer academies in the US. Let’s see if this is a huge opportunity for all clubs or certain clubs.”
Jorge Garcia, head of commercial, marketing and fan area for Valencia, and Eduardo Valdes, international development co-ordinator for SD Eibar, agreed, with Garcia saying: “Season ticket holders could say, ‘What are you doing playing matches in USA?’ We need a deep analysis – we’ve already had a lot of discussion in the club.”
Valdes, whose club only joined the top division for the first time in 2014, and is much smaller than most of its rivals, with a stadium that seats only 7,000 spectators, was arguably more positive, saying: “ For a small club it’s something really special, a good chance to go to another country to reach the US community. I don’t know if in future it will be possible to go, but it’s really interesting to at least evaluate it.”
LaLiga's growth The proposal is part of a drive to increase LaLiga’s value and international exposure since Tebas became president of LaLiga in 2013, an initiative that really took off with the centralisation of the league’s media rights in 2015, following an executive order from the Spanish government.
The move has resulted in a near doubling of the value of the rights between the 2015-16 season and the 2019-20 season, with combined domestic and international rights increasing in value from €1.2 billion ($1.4 billion) to €2 billion per year over the period.
International rights now account for 40 per cent of the total value, with the league being broadcast in 182 countries around the world by 90 international broadcasters. LaLiga claimed a total TV audience of 2.7 billion in the 2017-18 season, compared with 1.75 billion as recently as the 2014-15 season.
Meanwhile media revenues are now split more evenly between the clubs, with the biggest clubs earning four times as much as the smallest, compared with 20 times as much when rights were sold individually by the clubs. The move has led to a period of “unprecedented financial stability,” according to Pierce.
Asked by Sportcal how media rights growth can be maintained, Pierce said: “We sell rights through a competitive process, so in order for it to work we need to have competition on the ground in places where we’re selling. We’re making sure there are many channels through which we can reach fans, in addition to broadcast platforms. That’s why we’re on social media, and there’s an increase in events: public viewing; activating around local derbies; making fans feel more connected to LaLiga.”
“Everything we do is aimed, in whole or in part, at increasing interest in, and engagement with our competition and clubs. Greater interest and engagement translates into a greater audience and increases the value of our media rights, which continues to be a key revenue driver for our clubs.”The league now claims more than 60 million followers on social media and operates a LaLiga YouTube channel with almost 3 million subscribers.
Pierce continued: “We’re creating the right environment for more and more broadcasters, both emerging and traditional broadcasters. We recently announced an official Facebook platform in India. It’s a big question for all of the sporting and content industry. We’re in active conversations with existing and emerging platforms.”
Last month, LaLiga secured streaming of all of its matches via Facebook on the Indian subcontinent, in a three-year deal worth below €20 million, beginning from the start of this season.
Facebook’s payment represents a slight discount on the $32 million that Sony Pictures Networks paid for the rights from 2014 to 2018.
Tebas said of the deal: “We are thrilled to team up with Facebook to bring the millions of LaLiga fans in the Indian subcontinent even closer to the action. LaLiga sets the standard for football in the world and we are delighted that more people than ever before will have the opportunity to watch our matches live and for free through Facebook in the region.”
LaLiga is arguably late to internationalisation, having begun its drive only in the last five years, long after England’s Premier League began a similar push. The clubs at the media event acknowledged the point, but Sevilla's Hernandez said: “The good thing is they have done it now, and it would not have been possible without centralising the TV rights.”
Eibar’s Valdes added: “We didn’t have the structures, the professionalisation. We have now – we’ve spent four or five years working on creating that. We are a bit late, but after the Premier League we are the second league in terms of internationalisation.”
Valencia’s Garcia said that the move could not have been accomplished by the clubs individually, adding: “We need each other. My competitors are not only Sevilla, but the NBA, NFL, Manchester United...”