As the delayed 2020 European Championships (aka the Euros) kick off at the end of this week, American audiences may want to pay particular attention to Spain’s opening game against Sweden on Monday, June 14. It’ll give them a head start in knowing which players to watch once Spain’s top league, La Liga, starts broadcasting on ESPN in August.
Last month, ESPN and La Liga announced an eight-year, $1.4 billion broadcast deal that will see the network stream all 380 La Liga matches next season on ESPN Plus, with some televised on ESPN’s networks, including the twice-a-season marquee El Clásico matches between Barcelona and Real Madrid, the most-viewed league games worldwide.
For ESPN, the deal gives it yet more content—notably football programming—for its ESPN Plus streaming service, also the home of Bundesliga (as Germany’s top league moves over from Fox this season), England’s FA Cup, League Cup competition, and second-tier league called the Championship. It also has Spain’s Copa del Rey tournament, the Dutch Eredivisie league, Scottish Premiership, and both Major League Soccer and second-tier United Soccer League in the States. (La Liga replaces the outgoing Italian league Serie A, which is moving to CBS after three years at ESPN.)
It all adds up to about 2,900 matches per season.
“La Liga is one the biggest leagues in the world in terms of audience,” says Danny Sillman, CEO of New York-based Relevent Sports Group, which has been bringing major global soccer clubs to play live preseason games in the U.S. for the last decade and runs a joint venture handling sponsorships, content, and media rights for the Spanish league in North America.
La Liga is home to two of the most popular soccer clubs in the world. The social followings of Real Madrid (110 million Facebook followers, 95 million on Instagram) and Barcelona (110 million on Facebook, 97 million on Instagram) dwarf most sports leagues, let alone clubs. Now that ever-expanding fanbase will be able to more consistently see these two clubs, along with La Liga’s 18 others, in action week in and week out.
Before now, most fans would have to rely on luck that their cable provider carried Qatar-based beIN Sports, which previously held La Liga’s U.S. broadcast rights—though it has been unavailable on Comcast and DirecTV since 2018—or search for a dodgy illegal stream online. But the La Liga deal reflects not only the growing power of social media to influence programming decisions but also the increasing symbiosis between digital content shared through social platforms and streaming media.
That’s all about to change dramatically. And here’s how it happened.
How ESPN landed La Liga
The road to ESPN’s billion-dollar deal for La Liga started all the way back in December 2016 at the Camp Nou, home of global powerhouse Barcelona. Relevent Sports Group had been in negotiations to bring the two most popular and powerful soccer teams on the planet—Real Madrid and Barcelona—to play an official pre-season match on American soil as part of its International Champions Cup. The pitch was for a weeklong, Super Bowl-style event in Miami with hundreds of thousands of fans in an effort to give the popularity of the Spanish giants and league a major step up with U.S. audiences.
But first, it all depended on this game in Barcelona.
Barcelona had already agreed, but Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez told Relevent that he would not play the match in America if his team lost that December match. As the game clock ticked past 85 minutes, with less than 5 minutes of regulation time left, Barcelona was up 1-0. But in the 90th minute, the dying seconds of the game, Real Madrid legend Sergio Ramos popped in a header off a Luka Modric free kick to keep Madrid top of the league—sending El Clasico to America.
That 2017 pre-season match in Miami was a hit, and its success inspired La Liga to later propose playing real league games stateside, which many fans in Spain protested, and it led to an ongoing court battle between La Liga and the Royal Spanish Football Federation. But Americans loved the weeklong circus in 2017 that paired the biggest clubs with performances by Drake, Lil Wayne, and Marc Anthony and 66,000 fans crammed into Hard Rock Stadium. Relevent’s Sillman says it was the highest-grossing single soccer match in world history, at more than $36 million.
That was the first step.
In December 2017, Relevent signed a deal to form La Liga North America as part of a 15-year, 50-50 joint venture designed to generate marketing and sponsorship opportunities in the U.S. and Canada to build La Liga’s overall brand equity. The focus would be on creating content, events, and media. Relevent brought in Boris Gartner, a media veteran formerly of Univision, to be CEO of La Liga North America.
Missing, though, were the games themselves. At the time, La Liga’s American broadcast rights were part of a global deal with beIN Sports, which while lucrative on a global scale had incredibly limited exposure to U.S. audiences. That plummeted further when both Comcast and DirecTV dropped the channel, turning the Qatari broadcaster into an American audience desert, with most games getting fewer than 10,000 viewers.
The right content for the right audience
Because the games were out of reach for the time being, Gartner believed that the approach had to be different from what other international soccer teams and leagues were doing if there was going to be any long-term success. He pitched the idea of creating a studio to make content specifically for the U.S. audience. “If we put all of our eggs in the beIN basket as the contact with fans, we were dead in the water,” Gartner says. “So we did that through our own social channels and YouTube channel, and there was enough of a connection that we could build complementary content around the matches and keep the excitement for the league going, even though the matches had limited distribution.”
Getting people to watch content about Lionel Messi (the second most popular athlete on Instagram with 215 million followers), Barcelona, or Real Madrid was easy, but Relevant began targeting specific fans to spread interest out among more of La Liga’s clubs. For example, Diego Lainez and Andrés Guardado play for La Liga’s Real Betis, but they are also members of the Mexican men’s national team. Mexican American fans follow Mexican players religiously, so Relevent created content that also introduced them to the Spanish club. They took this approach with Latin American players throughout the league to attract expats in America.
“Once you get enough of those stories, you get the same level of audience and engagement as that one Messi story, but you’re really building the rest of the teams and the league,” Gartner says. The approach has helped the company double sponsorship revenue in each year of the deal so far.
It’s not just the opportunity to view more of these targeted stories that is exciting for football fans. It’s also getting to learn more about the league in English. For many casual soccer fans who’ve been catching the English Premier League on NBC every week, it boggles the mind that Villarreal (a team that finished seventh in La Liga this season from a city of about 50,000 people) could beat Manchester United—which rivals Real Madrid and Barcelona among the richest, most popular soccer clubs in the world—for the Europa League tournament title last month. Now, with the distribution and storytelling muscle at ESPN, they won’t be caught off guard again.
Javier Tebas, La Liga president, says the rights agreement with ESPN is a major achievement and a great example of the work done by the joint venture with Relevant. “We can now comfortably say that La Liga is the most important league in the world’s biggest media market,” Tebas wrote in an email. “The Relevent team have a unique understanding of the market and deep trusted relationships that have been incredibly valuable during our partnership.”
Now that content will be able to directly complement the games to a much broader audience.
“For the past three years we were playing with one hand tied behind our back,” says Gartner, referring to the beIN broadcast deal. “What happens now is, we know the product we have, we know the fans we have, and the engagement it has. Now you’re putting it in the biggest pipes that you can get. The awareness of the league, the availability, the scale we’ll have on games is going to be through the roof.”
The real proof of the new ESPN deal’s viability will be not only in the ratings, but also in how La Liga fandom takes hold across the U.S. Both Real Madrid and Barcelona will almost certainly use the increased exposure to pad their already massive numbers, but true success will look more like a Villarreal supporters club in Las Vegas or a Real Betis bar in Boston.