The Cost of Coming to America: La Liga’s Gamble
What: La Liga's deal to play regular-season games in the US and Canada is a huge risk for the league.
Why it matters: La Liga's gamble to export to domestic league matches won't do much to grow soccer in America.
Growing Soccer in America
In August, Relevent Sports and La Liga announced their plans to have regular season La Liga games played overseas in the United States and Canada. The move has been made in an attempt to raise the awareness of La Liga soccer and grow the sport in America. However, is this enough reason to bring Spanish domestic league soccer games across the Atlantic? Soccer is already one of the fastest growing sports in America. The number of boys and girls participating in high school has been on a steady rise since 2009 (https://bit.ly/2PCVDcj). The average attendance for MLS games currently stands at around 22,000, which is more than the NBA and NHL average attendances (https://bit.ly/2NgJgVL). The US, Canada and Mexico have just won a joint bid to host World Cup 2026 (@united2026) and Relevent’s ICC preseason tournament continues to set record numbers despite clubs rarely fielding star players on the tour. So does La Liga really need to have its games take place in North America to grow the sport?
Breaking Down La Liga's Attempt to Reach North America
Speaking to the COO of Collegiate Sports Management Group and an adjunct professor with Columbia University’s Sports Management Program, Ray Katz (@realraykatz) believes that this is the kind of deal that could hurt the league. In his opinion, player relations could suffer greatly from staging games across North American. Additionally, he points out that there are better ways for Spain’s top-tier soccer league to reach new audiences. “If La Liga want to get their product out there, then the key is availability globally from a media perspective. Make the league available to people on any screen, and ideally free or as part of existing a solid OTT or cable subscriptions.”
At the moment, La Liga games are shown on Bein Sports Network, a network that has recently been dropped by one of America’s top cable providers, Comcast. To Katz’s point on availability, a lesson is there to be learned from NBC Sports. In 2013, NBC Sports captured the rights to show the English Premier League (EPL), perhaps Europe’s most popular soccer league. The network made all games available, free of charge, provided viewers had a cable subscription. It wasn’t until last year the network put up a paywall for games not televised on cable. But by then, NBC Sports’ brilliant coverage had made hundreds, possibly thousands, of Americans into fans of one team or another in the EPL. More importantly, it made fans out of people willing to pay to see their team play if they weren’t being televised on one of the network’s major channels.
Make the league available to people on any screen...
If NBC Sports had made a pay streaming service for games at the outset of their deal with the EPL, there is serious doubt as to whether the EPL would be as prominent as it is in the US. In contrasts to La Liga, it’s current spot on a TV network, not readily available to most is extremely damaging to the product in America. On this issue, Katz said, “…La Liga needs to centralize their TV strategy and negotiations instead of having individual teams make these deals. The NFL did this in the 1960's and it yielded epic results.”
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It's clear from this deal, La Liga wants to do what the National Football League (NFL) has done with their sport. The NFL has exported regular season games to Europe and Mexico for some time now and it has been met with huge success. However, Katz points out La Liga won’t experience that same success with this new venture. “There isn't any other high-level American football played outside of the U.S so NFL games abroad, serve essentially as an “ambassador” for the sport itself. For La Liga, every country has their own reasonably strong soccer league so La Liga soccer won't necessarily attract that many new fans unless there are games with Barcelona or Real Madrid.”
Barcelona FC and Real Madrid CF have a massive global following already and don’t need to hold games across the Atlantic to increase their presence. Ticket pricing has already been earmarked as a possible problem. Last year’s ICC tournament featured the first “El Clasico” to be played outside of Spain, when Barça and Real met in Miami. Tickets to that match started at a whopping $300. This figure would get you into all home games alone at most Spanish clubs. But this is what ticket prices will look like if Americans want to watch regular season La Liga games in their own backyard. On the issue of ticket pricing Katz explained “…the only people who will pay the exorbitant ticket prices, are people who are fans of La Liga already.
You have to find a well thought out, balance between generating revenue and selling tickets. It can’t be one or the other.
A Mountain To Climb
The deal lacks support from the La Liga Players Association (LLPA), who are willing to strike in an effort to keep La Liga games in Spain. Many are not surprised by this stance, given the number of matches and cup competitions soccer players are involved in. One game could make all the difference in a season. La Liga will also have steep competition with established American sports, given the NFL, NHL, and NBA could all be in full force when it seeks to stage its games.
Additionally, the deal has to be approved by FIFA, UEFA, CONCACF, The United States Soccer Federation (USSF), the Spanish FA, Spain’s National Sports Council and its foreign ministry. FIFA will have the final say on the matter, but precedent doesn’t favor the deal either. The governing body's former president Sepp Blatter condemned the EPL’s previous proposals to play matches overseas as "unacceptable" and an "abuse of football." Despite all of this, La Liga recently announced that Barcelona against Girona will be the first game to be played overseas, with the Miami Dolphins Hard Rock Stadium the destination.