La Liga has been making plenty of headlines recently.
Never one to refrain from upsetting the apple cart, Javier Tebas, the president of Spanish soccer’s top flight, has been asserting plans to take regular season games to the US a part of a wider international push. The proposal has been the subject of fierce opposition from various stakeholders, but the 56-year-old seems intent on making La Liga about more than just Barcelona and Real Madrid by boosting the coffers of all its clubs outside of Spain.
That bold move might have garnered the most attention, but La Liga has quietly been broadening its international presence in recent years. Since 2016 the league has opened nine offices in eight countries, while the formation of the La Liga Global Network initiative has seen 44 ‘business scouts’ hired to be on the ground around the world.
One man playing a slightly more understated role than Tebas is Melcior Soler, the director of La Liga’s audiovisual department, who has been the driving force behind many of the league’s rights deals in key international markets, including recent partnerships with Eleven Sports in the UK and Facebook in India.
SportsPro caught up with Soler at Sportel Asia in Macau – where Tebas himself has been presenting to delegates – to get his thoughts on the future of La Liga’s rights in the UK, the opportunity to experiment with over-the-top (OTT) broadcasters, and loosening the Premier League’s stronghold on the international TV market.
Soler on Eleven Sports…
When news broke back in May last year that multinational broadcaster Eleven Sports would be launching in the UK with exclusive rights to La Liga, it was greeted with some scepticism by a fanbase that had become accustomed to watching the likes of Lionel Messi and Antoine Griezmann as part of their Sky Sports subscription package.
That scepticism soon turned to frustration when Eleven, which operates as a streaming subscription service in the UK, failed to secure a linear carriage deal with any of the main TV operators, leaving La Liga without traditional exposure in a key market, and a soccer-hungry audience with limited access to one of Europe’s top leagues.
When the two parties moved to renegotiate their deal in December, the likelihood was that Eleven would be losing exclusivity on its rights as La Liga made it clear that it would be going in search of a traditional broadcast partner.
Then, at the end of February, the league announced deals with two broadcasters, as pay-TV channel Premier Sports agreed to take on four games each week, while commercial broadcaster ITV landed a deal to bring top-flight club soccer matches back to free-to-air in the UK for the first time since Football Italia was on Channel 4.
“We always balance exposure and money – we always balance both things,” Soler tells SportsPro. “We like money a lot, but we like exposure too, so sometimes it is difficult to balance it. We thought that if Eleven would have been available on Sky, then the exposure would have been there too, but they didn’t manage to make that happen.
“What we see is that finally we got a very good solution for the rest of the season, so we have managed to get more exposure. Going on ITV is fantastic – we were not expecting it to happen, but it was very good news. Also to complement the transmissions on Premier Sport, which is on Sky and Virgin, so it’s fine for us.”
Eleven Sports has retained non-exclusive rights to every La Liga game until the end of this season
Eleven has already been forced to hand back its coverage of two other top-flight European soccer leagues in Serie A and the Eredivisie, and also lost rights to the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) at the end of last year. The network has, however, retained non-exclusive rights to every La Liga game until the end of this season, and despite the streaming service's struggles in the UK, Soler says La Liga does not regret the decision to team up with a broadcaster that has already served the league well in other markets.
“We have had different agreements with Eleven in other countries like Belgium, Poland and Portugal,” he begins, “and the experience with them is working well, especially in Poland and Belgium. So why not? We have a good relationship with them, so it was a case of why not?”
It is understood that Eleven believes La Liga’s deals with ITV and Premier Sports will boost its chances of holding on to the rights in the long run, and Soler also believes the model that is now in place could be replicated going forward.
“They (Premier Sports and ITV) were interested – they approached us,” he explains. “We were able to reach an easy agreement with them for the rest of the season, and are open to their proposals for the next cycle.”
Soler on Asia…
Like all major European soccer divisions, La Liga is attempting to make significant inroads into Asian markets, where domestic leagues are not as well established and offer little resistance to the higher quality of foreign soccer.
Given the time difference between Europe and Asia, Tebas has brought kick-offs forward to ensure at least some La Liga games are available at a reasonable hour for Asian audiences, but Soler says there is no such change to the way the league sells its rights in the region.
“We approach it the same way: money and exposure,” says Soler. “In China, for example, now we are really working to have more exposure. We already have the money, now we need the exposure.
“In other territories it is the same issue. If the broadcaster has a limited reach, then we help or encourage them to do a sub-licensing deal so that we get additional exposure weekly – either with highlights or with a live match.”
Despite La Liga maintaining a similar rights sales approach across the board, Asia was home to one of the league’s more eye-catching recent rights deals, which saw La Liga sign a four-year agreement in India with social media giant Facebook. The collaboration gives Indian fans free access to every La Liga game, and has already exposed the league to a vast userbase.
“Facebook is very strong in India, so we thought it would be a good test,” Soler explains. “On top of that we got [offered] more money than the traditional broadcasters, so we said: ‘let’s try’. It’s a test where we have the same money we had – we got a little bit more than we had, but we are happy.
“In India the games are not only shown on the La Liga Facebook page, but also on the two competing teams’ Facebook accounts. So each game is seen in three accounts – the league account and the two contenders.”
Melcior Soler, La Liga’s audiovisual department director, has been the driving force behind many of the league’s key international rights deals
Soler on working with new entrants…
In addition to Facebook in India, La Liga holds a rights agreement in Japan with over-the-top (OTT) broadcaster DAZN, which also shows Spain’s top tier in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.
At the start of this year, meanwhile, La Liga agreed a deal to have all matches from its second-tier Segunda Division streamed for free on YouTube in more than 155 countries. It is a partnership which Soler describes as “a very good step for us” and one that “gets better exposure for the Segunda Division.”
Indeed, whether they end up paying off or not, La Liga’s recent moves in the international broadcast space have been less cautious than those of its competitors, and are indicative of its willingness to work with new entrants to the market in an attempt to reach as many fans as possible.
“We are very [open],” Soler confirms. “This is not a case of us leading or not. We want to test newcomers and new technologies, but sometimes it is those new technologies or nothing, so we have had to go this way.”
Soler on the gap to the Premier League…
Since his appointment in 2013, the aforementioned Tebas has made no secret of his desire to develop La Liga by growing it as an entertainment business in order to boost its international profile.
The 56-year-old is nothing if not decisive, and one of his first and most game-changing plays was the move to centralise the sale of La Liga's broadcast rights. Before 2015, the league's teams had sold their international TV rights individually, which primarily benefited Real Madrid and Barcelona. Since then, however, the value of those rights have more than doubled, and that change has ensured a more even distribution among all 20 teams.
In that context, it is perhaps testament to La Liga's global growth that Tebas was linked to the Premier League's vacant chief executive role at the end of last month. At the time, the Spanish soccer league quickly denied that its chief would be moving to one of its biggest rivals, and Soler says La Liga will continue its international push to catch up to the richest league in world soccer.
“It’s the only way we can close this gap,” begins Soler, “because domestically Spain is a smaller country with minor per capita income, minor number of TV households, so it would be very difficult.
La Liga's ongoing power struggle with the Premier League isn't limited to matters on the pitch
“In England there are 65 million people, in Spain there are 45 million. In England there is 25 million homes and we have 15 million, so it’s very difficult to change this, but the world is big. So we think that in the years to come, the gap may be closer internationally.”
The Premier League, however, has been selling its rights collectively since 1992, and still boasts an advantage of around UK£1 billion when one compares the two leagues' annual broadcast revenues. Soler acknowledges that there remains ground to make up, but maintains that the foundations have been laid for La Liga to rope in its English equivalent.
“They have a lot of experience and they have been in the market for a long time, building their brand, so people still recognise the Premier League,” Soler adds. “So what we are trying is to build as big as we can our own brand.
“So, for example, this season we don’t have Ronaldo. Last season we didn’t have Neymar, but this has not affected La Liga, and this is very good news for us, because it means that our brand is getting stronger, and this is where we are going to have a stronger brand. We know that there is still a long way to go, but this is our target: to build a better brand."