La Liga to play in the US – will this ruin the domestic game?

La Liga, the top tier league in Spain and one of the world’s most popular leagues, will be set to play in the United States next year. It’s not a friendly, a promotional campaign, nor a pre-season tour. This time around, two teams will be vying for 3 points that will affect their overall standings back home.

Relevent, the organizers of the International Champions Cup (a friendly, European tournament hosted in the United States every year), has cemented a 15-year joint deal for La Liga to play one regular season game in the States. This will mark the first time in history La Liga has been played outside of the home country.

The news broke last week with a mixed reception. From a business and marketing point of view… why not? La Liga (being recognized for mostly Barcelona and Real Madrid in North America) could surely use more exposure here. I’m sure the average American could only name those too, at least. Bringing a regular season match here could increase La Liga’s revenue, brand awareness, and even an exclusive TV deal.

From a supporter’s perspective, this was the end of the world. Things like “it’ll destroy the game,” “it’ll destroy hundreds of years of tradition” and “it won’t work if you have smaller teams” made waves throughout social media channels. Soccer journalists, too, were perplexed at this venture. Is it fair to the hundreds of season ticket holders in the home country to miss out on a possible home game against a big rival? How is a game abroad benefiting the true backbone of the club?

While this isn’t the first time a sports league dares to extend its reach across the globe, lets tackle a few factors that may shed light on the pros and cons:

International Champions Cup

Inilah-Jadwal-Siaran-Langsung-International-Champions-Cup-2016-di-Indosiar.jpg

I think it’s important to address the popularity of soccer in the states. With Major League Soccer expanding to 28 teams and an influx of young Central and South American players joining the league, the sport has truly reached a great milestone. Others around the world are watching – that’s a fact. A testament to this is the International Champions Cup that commenced in 2013 with 8 teams across Europe participating. The objective was always a simple one – bring the bigger European teams to the United States for more brand expansion and revenue. In every year since its inception, the tournament has vastly grown; the ICC grew to hosting 17 teams in 2016. While fans worldwide know the European squads rarely display their lavishing starting 11, stadiums are nonetheless filled.

In 2015, the ICC added Australia and China as host countries, with Singapore coming on in 2017. You can imagine why the idea of this reoccurring tournament is so lucrative for so many parties.

How lucrative you ask? During the 2014 tournament, a match between Manchester United and Real Madrid at Michigan Stadium set the all-time record for attendance at a soccer game in the United States with 109,318 spectators.

Looking at these outcomes, it’s difficult to argue against a foreign league looking to tap into the American market.

Sports going abroad:

American sports have been doing what the Spanish league wants to accomplish for decades.

NFL2.jpg

The National Football Association began staging preseason games in London in 1983 and the first regular-season game beyond U.S. borders was a 2005 match-up between the Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers in Mexico City. The NFL will have four international games scheduled in 2018.

For the National Basketball League, the first regular-season game between two NBA teams outside of North America was in 1990, when the Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns met in Tokyo.

In the past five years alone, London, Istanbul, Manila, Beijing, Shanghai, Berlin, Rio de Janeiro and Mexico City have hosted preseason or regular-season match-ups.

The uphill battle in Spain

As of Wednesday, La Liga held a meeting with clubs and players alike, including captains Messi and Sergio Ramos, to hear their input. Many players expressed their concern of their lack of power in determining the initial decision.

“The players are outraged, very surprised and are all against it. It’s unanimous,” Spanish Footballers’ Association (AFE) president David Aganzo said after the meeting, which lasted an hour.

“The players don’t want to play overseas. Things have to be done in a more coherent way and with common sense. A decision of this magnitude, that affects players, referees and fans, was taken unilaterally and is a lack of respect.”

Below is a video of veteran Barcelona player, Sergio Busquets, saying “All of the futbol players are united.”

Recently, La Liga’s schedule has also seen an adjustment that now includes Friday and Monday games in addition to the normal Saturday and Sunday match-ups, adding more tension between the players and league.

“We have a meeting with La Liga in September but I don’t think it will serve for anything,” AFE president David Aganzo told Onda Cero radio.

La Liga president, Javier Tebas, however, doesn’t seem to mind the backlash. The president knows what he wants. Reporters are saying this could even result in a strike.

Under Tebas, La Liga has strengthened the finances of its 42 first and second-division teams and are pushing for the league to catch the Premier League in popularity and economic power.

“The figures are there,” Tebas said. “In four years we have trebled our international (TV) rights value.”

Seeing his track record, you can see Tebas is carefully calculating his next move.

The future is unknown

While no one can say with confidence that there will be a La Liga match played abroad this campaign, I do have some parting thoughts:

  1. Its been said this discussion has been in the works for about 8 months prior to last week’s announcement. I’m not sure why the league did not include the clubs or players or even make them slightly aware of it throughout the process?
  2. Rumors started circulating about the when and the where. Although guessing where the game will be played and who exactly will be the first to partake, you can pretty much bet it will have to be a top 5 team. I expect to see Real Sociedad, Sevilla Villareal, Valencia or Athletico Bilbao to accompany either Madrid or Barca.
  3. Some interesting information to dissect are the owners, Relevant. Relevant are part-owners of the Miami Dolphins and Hard Rock Stadium, both based in Florida. Some sources are saying the sunshine state would correlate with the company’s desire to host the game, seeing as early as March 2019 with Barcelona being the guinea pigs.
  4. The English Premier League is known of its huge global presence, and that’s without ever having to play a regular season game abroad. How much impact will playing a La Liga game abroad have on its brand awareness? Is there any actual evidence with any league or team that has done this? To say this move would be beneficial in any way would include years of research.

Talks between Relevant, the U.S. Soccer Federation, La Liga and FIFA are still ongoing.

What do you think? Are you for or against La Liga moving a game abroad? Let us know below or tweet us! @789Mediaco

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Andy Moran

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