When LaLiga and Relevent Sports Group announced last August that they were signing a 15-year joint venture to promote the league and soccer in North America, one element of the deal dominated the conversation – the plan to host a regular season LaLiga match in the U.S., which would be the first held outside of Europe.
While that match has still not come to life – although the two sides say they’re making progress in making it happen – the partnership enters year two ahead of the 2019-2020 LaLiga season with the belief that is making progress towards what is its overarching goal: growing the presence of the league and its clubs in North America.
That has come via a five-core-pillar strategy laid out by Boris Gartner, a former executive at Televisa and Univision who was tapped as CEO of the new LaLiga North America venture last August.
The five pillars are as follows: TV and media rights; content and engagement strategy; soccer development projects, such as youth academies; events and activations; and that aforementioned regular season match.
Gartner said progress was made on all of those fronts in the last year, ranging from opening LaLiga’s first-ever youth academies in North America to launching a ‘LaLiga Zone” brand around events and activations as well as holding one alongside the El Clasico match between Barcelona and Real Madrid.
While there will be some changes to the strategy within all of those pillars in year two, perhaps the biggest shift will come on the content side and exactly who LaLiga is now targeting in North America.
In 2018-2019, LaLiga North America focused heavily to corner what it feels is its most-natural market for the league and its content: the Spanish-speaking Hispanic audience.
That led to building a content operation in Mexico with more than six team members. It created programming such as a pre-match show streamed on Facebook Live and a weekly anchored show hosted by famous Mexican sports broadcaster Luis Garcia.
In total, LaLiga North America produced 100 episodes combined from six different shows it launched since January. In total, that content reached 6.1 million people, generating more than 1.9 million video views and garnering 260,000 social media interactions. The content was shared across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube.
“In the first year, we decided that we were going to go after primarily that Spanish language- U.S. Hispanic audience – not only is there the language affinity, but it’s also a segment we knew that grew up on soccer, knows the teams, knows the league, so we didn’t have to sell them on it,” Gartner said.
“We know we’ll always be catering to and super-serving that audience first, but we see an opportunity to reach even more fans.”
Those would be English speaking fans, most notably those that are second- and third-generation bilingual Hispanic Americans.
“That’s the base for our English language strategy – that young, diverse and multicultural audience,” Gartner said.
LaLiga North America will look to hit that market this season with an English language show anchored by a well-known commentator – Gartner declined to provide more detail – as well as a documentary series highlighting the stories of LaLiga fans in the U.S. as well as a show that focuses on the non-soccer lifestyle elements on soccer in Spain such as food, fashion and travel.
While that Hispanic audience strategy is key to LaLiga’s growth in the U.S. – in the country, Hispanic viewers accounted for 68% of the total soccer TV viewership in 2017 – Gartner said its shows like those lifestyle features that will help broaden the league further into the general market.
Gartner said LaLiga North America is in discussions with several OTT and digital platforms to further amplify the reach of the content it is producing.
LaLiga’s U.S.-focused social media accounts have also seen a lift since the partnership began last August. On Facebook, its followers grew by 5.2% year-over-year, while its followers on Instagram grew more than 79%.
It remains to be seen if a new extended deal with U.S. and Canadian rightsholder beIN Sports will further aid in extending the league’s reach. LaLiga has been on the network since 2012, and the new deal will keep it there until 2024.
While beIN has circled its sports content around LaLiga, providing the league with a marketing boost, the network’s small reach compared to ESPN, FOX Sports and NBC Sports has often put it behind the pecking order of other European leagues on U.S. television and in the minds of many soccer fans, despite the fact that some of the most well-known players and clubs call the league home.
Gartner, who spoke to Front Office Sports ahead of the deal being formally announced, said that there is “a tension between growing your fanbase and viewers, and at the same time growing the business.”
“It’s a tricky balance – how do you maximize value and how do you maximize reach? – those two things might not always go hand-in-hand,” Gartner said. “When you talk to the clubs, they all want to have more reach, they want to be seen by more viewers. But when you boil it down to money, and say you’ll get X less every year for the next three years, almost always you’re going to find they’re interested in maximizing the value so that they can invest more into the players.”
Industry sources said that the new deal with beIN will likely see some of the LaLiga matches sublicensed to another broadcaster so that the reach of the matches can be increased. Gartner declined to comment on the deal.
For LaLiga North America, which is now a nine-person operation, Gartner said there is still work to be done in year two of a 15 year deal.
Some of that will come on the sponsorship side, where LaLiga North America is now working with Excel Sports Management. Some of that will be via new academies and coaching clinics popping up across the U.S. and Canada. Some of that will be hosting events and publishing more content that reaches more fans.
And last but not least – the match.
“We’re persistent,” Gartner said. “We know it’s complicated, but when we talk to fans here in the U.S. we know how excited they are about it and how much demand there would be for it.”
Gartner said that while he still doesn’t know if LaLiga North America will get all of the approvals for the match this season, that they are taking a “pragmatic approach – there doesn’t seem to be a very strong argument against it.” He said they’ll continue to work on getting it over the line – this time a little more behind the scenes.
Did Gartner mind that the match dominated headlines when the partnership was announced?
“It definitley gave us a lot of attention from the get-go, and I don’t think that’s bad,” he said. “But the downside to that is that the match is just one of the five pillars for us, and all of those other things we’re doing will probably have more impact on our overall goal than just that match will.”