A group of kids play soccer in the spectacular stadium of the Miami Dolphins (Florida), with capacity for 75,000 spectators. Among them there are players from Zaragoza, Osasuna, Ibiza and Huesca. The Spanish stand out in this sport. Although they are more dexterous with the thumb than with the foot. They don’t actually shoot with a real ball. They play the EA Sports video game FIFA. They are participating in the tournament organized this week by the US operator Verizon and LaLiga: the eSports All-Star US Challenge, which has attracted the attention of hundreds of thousands of young people through their screens. The online broadcast added more than six million visits. The video game competition is just a sample of the activities that LaLiga is carrying out in the United States to promote its brand and expand the business to the other side of the Atlantic. The association of clubs operates in the United States hand in hand with the local partner Relevent Sports Group, the largest producer of sporting events in the US. Together they created a joint venture four years ago (LaLiga North America) that last year already yielded dividends of 12 million dollars.
The most important milestone of this journey through the United States is the contract signed last year with the sports television network ESPN, owned by the Walt Disney Group, to transfer its broadcasting rights for eight seasons for an amount close to 1,400 million of euros. It also reached other agreements with the Mexican network Televisa, which doubles the amount of the previous contract. This makes the United States the second most important market for the organization chaired by Javier Tebas. “There is no example like this with soccer in the US It is a success story. We are better positioned than any other European league”, says Boris Gartner, CEO of LaLiga North America.
In four years the World Cup will be held in the United States, Canada and Mexico. The fondness for football —as the football played in Europe is known there— is rapidly spreading throughout the country and LaLiga wants to take advantage of the opportunity. “Soccer is a growing market in the US, with a very young audience that values health and lifestyle, which is why it is a very important goal for brands. Soccer in the US is certainly a growth market, ”explains an ESPN spokeswoman.
The conquest of the American market is strategic for a giant that invoiced more than 3,818 million euros during the 2020-2021 season, the most affected by the covid. It was not a good year for the clubs because revenue fell by almost 25%. LaLiga teams recorded losses of 892 million that year. The organization that brings together the 42 teams in the Spanish professional soccer competition has announced that in 2021-2022 it has recovered a good part of its income, but it still continued to suffer from the pandemic. That is why the arrival of new income from the US is so important.
The eSports tournament played in Miami was held in the bowels of the Miami Dolphins football stadium. Verizon, which has created an online gaming platform together with the Spanish teams, has spared no expense in this tournament, which was attended by EL PAÍS invited by LaLiga: in the stadium they have set up a large television studio to broadcast the matches of the FIFA, professional announcers, interviews with the players in another television studio, make-up room, space for the players to train, catering, assistants… The brands have realized that something is brewing and they don’t want to be left out.
LaLiga has also seen an opportunity to promote its business. In addition to Verizon, it has agreements with other sponsors in the US such as Herbalife, Tequila Camarena, the betting platform PointsBet, the ticket sales group Stage Front Tickets or the application for communities of fans of electronic sports Greenpark, which report something more than $10.6 million a year, according to Patrick Lowe, LaLiga North America’s head of sponsorships. “Each sponsor has different goals and seeks to reach different demographics,” says Lowe. “The big brands don’t want visibility, they look for other values, other objectives. Verizon, for example, is well known in the United States, sponsoring nearly twenty NBA and NFL teams. It doesn’t have reach problems, but the specific audience that we offer it doesn’t”, completes Boris Gartner. For this reason, LaLiga is exploring new commercial agreements. He believes that there are still opportunities to expand sponsorships in the automotive sector, large distribution groups or insurance.
In the United States there is a market of 62 million people who speak Spanish out of a total population of about 350 million. A Gallup poll reveals that soccer is already one of the three most followed sports by those under 34, along with American football and the NBA. Adrian Segovia, head of content and distribution for LaLiga NA, explains the target audience they are targeting: second- or third-generation Hispanic origins, who already use English as their main language, but who maintain their roots and love of football. And that demographic is growing fast. “Football is going to become the second sport with the most fans. Now there is the NFL, the NBA, baseball and football, but the evolution of demographics is going to cause a radical change. American football is declining, baseball is losing interest, and soccer is losing interest. It is adding more and more fans,” explains Gartner.
The New York Red Bulls have just beaten their local rival, City, by three goals to nil in the quarterfinals of the US Soccer Cup. The stadium of the energy drink franchise is located in New Jersey, about 20 minutes west of the Big Apple. It has 25,000 seats and last Wednesday night, when the game is played, it has a little less than half an entrance. The average age of the attendees is lower than in any football stadium in Europe. A man in his thirties yells in English to cheer on his team. When he is asked, he confesses in Spanish that he is very fond of LaLiga. He belongs to the second generation of a Guatemalan family. On the outskirts of the stadium, a father with two sons stops to see some jerseys of the Williams brothers, who play for Athletic Bilbao. He is also part of the second generation of Latino immigrants and speaks Spanish with difficulty, but insists that he only watches LaLiga games on television. “I am from Madrid, and from Bilbao, because of the Williams brothers”, he slides.
This phenomenon has led LaLiga to create specific content about Mexican and American LaLiga players. Lainez, from Betis; Tecatito Corona, from Seville; Macias, from Getafe; Sergiño Dest, from Barça, or Musah, from Valencia, among others, are an important attraction for US fans. That is the differential fact that LaLiga has found for its expansion and a gold mine for its business. “Instead of making the great stories of Real Madrid and Barcelona, we produce content about the rest of the clubs and players with links to the region. That helps us build a community and link fans to the product,” explains Boris Gartner. To do this, the association of clubs has created a parallel newsroom with 20 workers in Guadalajara, Mexico, from where it produces specific content for television, sponsors and fan communities.
The contract signed by LaLiga and ESPN can mark the future. The Spanish championship will cede its broadcasting rights for eight years at a rate of about 175 million dollars a year (the equivalent of just over 170 million euros). In total, the American chain will pay about 1,400 million dollars until the 2028-2029 season. The agreement includes the broadcast of all LaLiga Santander matches and one of LaLiga SmartBank, more than 380 matches per season.
Tim Bunnel, ESPN’s senior vice president of programming, avoids talking about the subscribers they have achieved after the agreement with LaLiga. “Of course we are interested in getting many subscribers, but there are also other qualitative aspects that allow us to build loyalty.” And he insists: “We don’t have a specific audience target with LaLiga, we’re looking for more of a long-term benefit. The data shows that the hobby of football It is growing and that is why we bet on an eight-year contract. We do not want to value the audiences in the first year. That’s not the only important thing.” Bunnel insists that the bet of the leading network of audiences in sports for soccer is genuine. “It’s the future,” he nods.
ESPN’s headquarters are located in Bristol, a two-hour drive north of New York. The campus extends over 50 hectares where there are 17 buildings with newsrooms, television studios and a powerful broadcasting center with dozens of giant satellite dishes. Some 6,000 people work there, although the establishment of teleworking after the pandemic makes the modern facilities seem almost deserted on Tuesday morning. ESPN is the largest sports television network in the world. It belongs to the Walt Disney Company group. Founded in 1979, it was a pioneer in offering a cable subscription system. In recent years, after exceeding 100 million subscribers, the model seems to be in a certain decline. To boost its business, it has launched ESPN+, the application of streaming that allows you to watch all sports live. And that is where he has seen the collaboration with LaLiga as an opportunity. In the latest financial results of the entertainment group, the Walt Disney Company highlighted the evolution of ESPN+, which already has 22.3 million subscribers, almost five million more than those registered six months earlier.
LaLiga’s contract with ESPN offers a competitive advantage over the Premier League, the other most popular major soccer competition in the US. English league matches cannot be viewed on a single platform. Fans have to have multiple channels to find them. However, all LaLiga matches are broadcast on ESPN. “We want a simple model that reaches the fan more directly,” says Bunnel, who highlights the chain’s definitive commitment to the football.
In its earnings presentation, Disney reported that ESPN+ average revenue per subscriber increased to 5.16 in the first quarter of 2022, a noticeable improvement from the previous quarter. Disney largely attributed the increase to the new NHL rights deal, as well as its rights deal with LaLiga, according to a financial report from S&P Global Market.
ESPN seems to have found a good partner in LaLiga, which brings it closer to a young, growing and passionate audience, which fuels the increase in the number of subscriptions. And the professional association of clubs has found a perfect ally to better project its image. The conquest of the United States by LaLiga has already begun.
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