La Liga isn’t shy about its ambitions for a long-term presence in North America.
“La Liga is motivated to go and develop the brand here and invest in it, rather than just get in and four years get a better TV deal,” said La Liga North America CEO Boris Gartner at a South by Southwest panel about growing international soccer in North America.
The Spanish soccer league is renowned for being one of the world’s premier competitions, featuring trademark clubs including Real Madrid, FC Barcelona and Atlético Madrid. But its reach does not match up to that of the English Premier League, whose 15-plus year investment in a United States presence has catapulted it to a global behemoth. Now, after La Liga tightened up its domestic infrastructure and likely maximized its revenue at home along the way, Gartner believes its next challenge is to plant a flag in the United States — and, in so doing, catch the EPL.
It’s a lofty goal, one which Gartner said is buoyed by a natural language to the United States’ nearly 60 million Hispanics. But the true centerpiece begins in taking live stadium play across the Atlantic ocean. One of La Liga’s partners, Relevant Sports founded the International Champions Cup and exhibition tournament between European club teams with the goal of showcasing top-notch European competition outside of the continent.
“We wanted to formalize competition, big club against big club,” Relevant Sports CEO Daniel Sillman said. “We don’t latch onto the term ‘friendly.’ Sports is about pride and winning, so we wanted to create a journey you can follow.”
La Liga has been one of the competition’s most visible participants. In 2017, ICC featured La Liga’s Real Madrid and Barcelona playing the famed “El Clásico” fixture at Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium– just the second time in history the fixture has been held outside of Spain. For that match, Sillman said they wanted to create an entertainment experience American soccer had never seen before and use it to grow the game. The festival-like atmosphere was loaded with musicians, athletes, fashion brands in an exhibition that was far removed from the typical European soccer experiences, too. Based on the success of the ICC game in Miami, La Liga officials believe in the live game attraction for new fans. The long-term goal would be to one day hold a competitive match in the U.S.
“We strongly believe having an official league match, fighting for three points, would be more appreciated and an evolution of international soccer in the U.S.,” Gartner said. “We knew it’d be tough to get through, but that’s our moonshot idea.”
The efforts are not dissimilar to those by U.S. leagues like Major League Baseball through scheduling regular-season games in Tokyo and London, or the National Football League’s in Mexico City and London. But it also would involve significant red tape. To make a league match happen in the U.S., La Liga would need the approval of the Spanish soccer federation, UEFA, USA Soccer, CONCAFA and FIFA. The league already failed in its first attempt to secure it but Gartner said he’s determined to one day make the match a reality.
“It’s not a question of ‘if,’ but ‘when,’” Gartner said. “It has to happen. We’ll try and again and keep doing it until people get tired of us trying.”
The arguments in favor of and against an international league game in the U.S. are many on each side, said Tony Meola, a Sirius XM soccer broadcaster and former U.S. National Team goalkeeper.
“From an MLS standpoint, I don’t want ICC or La Liga. We’re fighting for dollars,” Meola said. “[But] personally, I think there’s room. Not every city has an MLS team. There’s a market for it. I’m a fan, I just love learning about the game.”
On the La Liga side, there’s a belief that a collective effort can build soccer in a ripe underserved market, Gartner said. La Liga isn’t alone in its belief the U.S. holds a bountiful potential for international soccer. Gartner said a large contingent of teams and leagues see an opportunity, a fact highlighted through the sheer number of games broadcast each weekend on cable from international leagues such as the Premier League, La Liga, Serie A and Liga MX.
Still, he said, “I don’t think there’s anyone else doing it with a focused and strategic. It’s more sophisticated and tough and takes investment. You can’t just sit down in an office and expect the rights to go higher.”
Instead, it takes the right sort of big ideas. Gartner and La Liga hope theirs is exactly that.