La Liga plan to play matches in U.S. isn’t going to ruin football — it’s smart business


Relevent Sports chairman Charlie Stillitano explains his vision to build and promote the La Liga brand through games played in the U.S.

When the notion of playing a 39th game was first raised about a decade ago, it turned into one of the few times Premier League boss Richard Scudamore badly misjudged public opinion. Such was the opposition that you would have thought Scudamore wanted clubs not just to play an extra game abroad, but to do so while clad in baby seal fur.

The idea was so toxic that only one owner — David Gold (then at Birmingham, now at West Ham) – was willing to speak out in favour of the idea. Everybody else ran a mile for fear of angering fans, which was somewhat cowardly since it’s not as if Scudamore and Gold cooked this up on their own.

But Spain isn’t England and 2008 isn’t 2018. You assume that Javier Tebas, head of La Liga, did the requisite canvassing of clubs before signing off on a 15 year deal with Relevent Sports (the same folks who organise the International Champions Cup) to play league games in the United States. Details have yet to be worked out, but reportedly the first match could be as early as next march, pitting Betis and Barcelona in Miami.

We’ve had Supercups abroad — the French, Italian and Spanish ones, in fact — but this would be the first time a league fixture from one of the world’s top domestic tournaments is played outside of national borders.

Are we crossing some kind of Rubicon here? Despite the Chicken Littles moaning about the sky falling – about how this will unravel the fabric of football itself and undermine supporters – the answer is “no”.

It’s not just that other sports — Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association and the National Football League — play regular season matches abroad. It’s the fact that the way the sport is run and consumed, at least at the top end, has changed. Domestic markets are saturated. To grow, leagues have to chase dollars abroad.

The Premier League understood this a long time ago and others are trying to close the gap. They’ve tried aping English clubs by sharpening up the way their rights are sold, boosting their overseas sponsorships and commercial operations and improving their production values. But, inevitably, they’re playing catch up. So La Liga are rolling the dice by doing what the Premier League wanted to do, but failed to push through.

The Spanish Players’ Union has already voiced its opposition, as have some fan groups. Overall though, we’ve not yet seen the universal backlash Scudamore faced in 2008. And odds are, we won’t.

In this case, the differences between England and Spain matter. Whereas the Premier League has had a distinctly egalitarian ethos from the start — which is why the 2008 plan involved every team playing a match broad — La Liga has been dominated (on the pitch and politically) by two clubs, Real Madrid and Barcelona. As a result, expect the project to start with only one or two games, always involving one of the big boys, rather than, say, Huesca v Eibar. That will minimise the disruption. And even though some clubs will have to forgo a home game (and, in fact, if they are playing Real Madrid or Barcelona, it will likely turn into a de facto away match, since the crowd will presumably favour Real or Barca), you’d assume that financially it will be worth their while.

Barcelona have played in the U.S. during the ICC, but will a regular season game be next? It's an idea that has traditionalists (and the players' union) upset, but it's the logical next step for the business of football.
Barcelona have played in the U.S. during the ICC, but will a regular season game be next? It’s an idea that has traditionalists (and the players’ union) upset, but it’s the logical next step for the business of football.

In fact, if La Liga are smart about it, they could turn it into event. A game in the U.S. every couple of years for a Villarreal, an Athletic Bilbao or a Celta could be seen as something special, with supporters, perhaps with subsidized travel, crossing the ocean. Spain doesn’t have the same cultural of traveling fans that England has for “ordinary” matches, so there would likely be less of a backlash from the folks who suddenly need to travel to Miami rather than Madrid to watch their team.

Supporters are the lifeblood of the game, it’s been said a million times. But, equally, we’re reaching the point where the vast majority of fans experience the match through broadcast media, not in person – and often not in the league’s country. To those folks, it matters a whole heck of a lot less.

The more interesting question is what La Liga does with the additional revenue raised. Sure, rising tide lifts all boats, but it’s not as if Getafe are going to turn into Barcelona (or even Valencia or Seville) by playing games abroad. The big boys will still drive revenue.

The issue, then, becomes: How will La Liga share the money? If it helps teams achieve some level of financial solidity (something that many smaller clubs in Spain have struggled with over the years), it can be a positive all-round. The mega-clubs will continue to conquer market share and grow their slice of the sports entertainment dollar, the “upper middle class” (Sevilla, Valencia, Athletic Bilbao, etc.) will see their brands strengthened and their revenues grow, while the rest — with some proper oversight from La Liga — will avoid the boom-and-bust cycle that has long afflicted the minnows.

That’s how the project can succeed as something other than a cash grab for Spain’s one-percenters. You can only hope that’s what Tebas has planned.

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