Covid-19: 2020-21 season may see fans in stadiums, says La Liga India head

Topics La Liga | Coronavirus | football

File photo: Football match being played at Barcelona's home stadium Camp Nou without fans amid Covid-19 pandemic
The 2020-21 season of the Spanish football league (La Liga) is expected to begin in September this year, the league’s president Javier Tebas said. But what about the fans? Will the league still be played in empty stadiums?

“It’s quite probable that there will be some fans inside the stadium when the new season starts on September 12,” said Jose Antonio Cachaza, Managing Director, La Liga India, at a virtual press conference held on Wednesday.

He said the league is working with the Spanish government and health experts to ensure some fans are allowed inside the stadium.

“But don’t expect immediately that there will be 100,000 fans at Camp Nou or 80,000 at Santiago Bernabeu stadium, we are still a few months away from that,” La Liga’s India head added.

With the rapid spread of Covid-19 across the world,  most sporting leagues either decided to call off tournaments or take a break before resuming. Germany was the first country to resume its football league in May. La Liga followed Bundesliga and resumed in June. All the leagues which resumed followed strict safety protocols to avoid risk of infection and decided to play in empty stadiums.

With the risk of infection still high, it certainly looks likely that most fans may have to settle with the watching-from-home experience for some more time.

Football Viewership on rise in times of Covid-19

And data shows that fans are embracing this new experience. The first matchday of La Liga after the league's restart saw an increase of over 48 per cent in global viewership compared to the average of first 27 matchdays, according to Nielsen Sports. Africa reported an increase of 73% while South Africa reported a whopping 210% rise. In Europe, a rise of 56% was reported.

In India, where the La Liga matches are shown live through Facebook, viewership saw an impressive jump of 72% post-Covid-19 break.

Is Facebook the way forward?

La Liga partnered with Facebook in 2018 to broadcast live matches to the Indian subcontinent. It’s about connecting with your fans and what better way than Facebook to do that. “India is one the biggest digital market in the world today with a very young and growing audience and with Facebook we are able to target our goals which are – digital, international and connecting with the fans,” Cachaza said. In the last few years, digital companies like Facebook, Twitter, Amazon and others have taken a key interest in broadcasting live sports matches and tournaments. In 2017, Facebook unsuccessfully bid $600 million for Indian Premier League’s digital rights. After Facebook unsuccessful bid, media mogul Rupert Murdoch had said it was a “warning shot” for them.

La Liga's virtual commentator box


Check LaLiga Facebook page here

With a rapid increase in data consumption, viewing experience has shifted towards OTT platforms, making it more suitable for watching matches on your smartphones. Hotstar, SonyLiv app and other such OTT platforms are now showing live matches of the English Premier League, Italian football league, and other league matches on their platforms for a subscription fee.

But is Facebook better suited as a platform for broadcasting live matches than other OTT platforms?

“Today digital platforms are very important and we are absolutely sure that Facebook is the right partner for us. The viewership numbers also support our claim,” Cachaza said.

One unique feature about Facebook is that it provides an opportunity for the fans to interact, enhancing the live viewing experience which OTT platforms don’t have, he added.

Football presenter for Facebook, Joe Morrison, who was also present at the press conference said, “Facebook provides La Liga fans a medium to directly connect with the game and engage with them simultaneously along with the live screening. The digital medium is also the way of interacting with fans through polls and comments in real-time.”

The other advantage for La Liga and Facebook is that there has been no subscription charges to be paid which gives it some edge over other OTTs.

But many fans are not comfortable with the idea of watching matches on Facebook. They still want to view matches on their television sets and not many in India have access to Facebook Watch on their TVs.

A recent report on Forbes said Facebook is scaling down its investment on live sports and one of the major reasons for that was the viewers were getting easily distracted. Platforms like Facebook were more suited for sports clips and talk shows around the matches rather than the match itself, according to the report.

But the viewership numbers suggest La Liga’s bet on Facebook is paying for now.

Mukesh Ambani-led Reliance has a key interest in Indian football and Facebook recently bought a 9.9% stake in Jio Platforms. Is there any possibility of any future tie-ups between Reliance and La Liga? “The deal happened just few days back. So it’s still not a question for us yet,” Cachaza said.

Technology at play

MEDIAPRO's control room
Due to the travel restrictions imposed, commentators and football pundits were not able to travel to their studios in Barcelona.

To make the pre-match show possible, a signal starts from Dubai, where the production company is based, travels to England and Germany where the presenter and other panelists are, before travelling to Barcelona where the program signal is produced. It is then sent to Facebook servers in Los Angeles from where the signal is finally distributed to all the countries in the Indian subcontinent completing a journey of 30,000 km.

“Football fans have evolved dramatically with time and their desire for quality content has made it possible to experiment with new ways of connecting and communicating content,” said Natxo Imaz, Digital Projects CTO at MediaPro, responsible for the production of La Liga matches.

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