After losing Ronaldo, Spanish football sets eye on global reach and riches

The Spanish soccer league, whose clubs reign supreme in Europe's biggest competitions, is staging a counter-attack in the clash for global reach and riches off the field.

La Liga has been trying to promote itself overseas by opening marketing offices in the Far East and hiring a former Netflix executive as its new head of communications. After losing two of its biggest stars in consecutive seasons -- first Neymar to France and now Cristiano Ronaldo to Italy -- President Javier Tebas is considering taking matches to another country in the way the NFL and NBA play in London. The U.S. is a likely destination.

“We would like to do it once or twice a season,” Tebas said in an interview at his office in Madrid last week. “I’m convinced that over the next few seasons we will play outside Spain. It’s not easy because we have fans in Spain, but I hope we can do it in the next year or two.”

For all the supremacy of its top clubs -- Spanish teams have won the Champions League and Europa League nine times out of 10 competitions over the past five years -- the country plays second fiddle to the English Premier League when it comes to generating money. Revenue from broadcasting rights was 1.5 billion euros ($1.8 billion) in the latest annual report by consulting firm Deloitte, less than half that of the English league.

But Spanish revenue is catching up. When Tebas took over in 2013, broadcast rights were negotiated by individual clubs. Now television deals are done centrally by the league. Spain has overtaken Germany’s Bundesliga as the highest revenue generator after the Premier League.

In the latest round of bidding, Telefonica SA trumped its main rival Mediapro in June for the lion’s share of broadcast rights, paying 2.9 billion euros for three seasons. The price dropped in the most recent Premier League deal. “We are bridging the gap,” Tebas said.

Now to build on the rapid growth in global rights sales, which Tebas said have quadrupled to 800 million euros compared with 2013.

The next phase is to become a larger entertainment brand with a loyal fan base watching soccer rather than shows on Netflix. That would also help make it less vulnerable to players defecting to other leagues, Tebas said. Ronaldo, 33, left Real Madrid for Juventus, though his perennial rival for the position of La Liga’s biggest star, Lionel Messi, remains at Barcelona. 

“It would be irresponsible if we didn’t prepare ourselves for when a player isn’t in the league,” he said. “We are about entertainment. Our competition isn’t only other soccer leagues, its other sports, like motorbike racing, and things such as Netflix. Our biggest rival is the remote control, because people can change channels.”

Tebas might also face challenges with his goal of taking league games abroad. His Premier League counterpart, the departing Richard Scudamore, couldn’t pull it off. He proposed a similar idea 10 years ago, but withdrew the plan after a backlash from local fans. European clubs play pre-season tournaments in the U.S. and Asia instead.

In the meantime, La Liga’s workforce of about 400 is working on branding, social media and advertising in offices worldwide, including South Africa, Singapore and China.

“There are many ways to grow, other than playing abroad, such as how we manage the La Liga brand and how we work with big data,” said Tebas. “The world is so big, there's a lot for us to do.”

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