When La Liga centralised the sale of its broadcast rights in 2016, bringing an end to an era of crossed purposes and differing incentives among Spanish soccer’s top clubs, it sensed the chance to try a more creative approach.
An avalanche of coordinated programmes has followed, with a particular emphasis on finding another way in its efforts to eat into the Premier League’s massive international lead. Some of those, like an attempt to play competitive games in the US, have been more visible than others. The one that is perhaps most emblematic of its desire to move quickly and do things differently is La Liga Global Network, which has scattered representatives all over the world.
“No one else has a project like this in the sports marketing industry,” suggests Octavi Anoro (pictured right), the head of La Liga Global Network, at the league’s headquarters in Madrid in late November.
“We have structured ourselves in three pillars,” he says. “We have a team in Madrid working on the international project. We have regional offices in nine strategic markets around the world. And then we have this project which is called La Liga Global Network, which is composed of 46 delegates living in 43 countries around the world. We have sent these delegates to strategic markets for La Liga to understand the local sports industry, the local community, to find new opportunities in these markets.”
For Keegan Pierce, the La Liga Global Network delegate for the UK and Ireland, the organisation is rooted in what is “very much a 21st century style model of remote working”.
“The key role of this chain is to make sure that best practices are shared across the network,” he says, “that contacts that arise in one location are given to contacts in other locations, and really we’re all in constant communication and learning from each other. So typically you’re in very regular contact with the rest of your regional team – I’m speaking pretty much every single day with the guys from Europe.
“With Oscar [Mayo, director of international development] and Octavi, particularly given the interest that exists in the UK market, we’re in pretty regular contact as well.”
Building the network
“Back in 2016, La Liga launched a call worldwide looking for some young, talented people between 24 and 38 years old,” remembers Anoro.
“I was working with a tourist holding group, working in communications and marketing and also corporate relations. I was the head of the department there. I was enjoying my job but I felt like I wanted something else.”
Pierce was working in the soccer industry at that time but also remembers seeing the advertisement – “sort of an open casting” – and seeing it as a route into a league he had “always had [his] eye on”.
“I was impressed with the organisation,” he says, “impressed with the ambition of the league, and happened to get a heads-up from somebody who worked in La Liga that the next wave of global expansion was going to be through a project called La Liga Global Network.”
They were not alone. The initial scheme, operated with the logistical support of what was then a new title sponsor for the league in Santander, apparently attracted 12,000 applications from 40 countries. “I didn’t know that when I applied for the first time!” laughs Anoro.
Keegan Pierce is La Liga Global Network's UK representative
Those candidates were whittled down through a series of interviews and tests, including an assessment day at the former home of Atletico Madrid, the Vicente Calderon. “And at that point,” Pierce says, “they brought in a group of 60 of us who didn’t know quite where we were going around the world but knew that we had the possibility of joining La Liga’s new global structure.”
The successful candidates went through an “intensive” ten-week on boarding course in the Spanish capital, “getting a 360-degree tour of what La Liga was, what kind of business interests the league had, what markets they were active in already, what the plan was for the next phase of growth”.
All of that came as the delegates found out just where it was they would be spending the next phase of their lives. “You had an opportunity early on to say where you saw yourself best being positioned,” Pierce says. “Some people probably cast a wider net than others.”
Professional experience and language skills were factored into the process alongside individual preferences – Pierce, an American, had stated his for staying somewhere in Europe – but some were deemed capable of meeting a steep learning curve.
“At that time, two years ago, nobody was an expert in the Japanese market,” explains Anoro. “So for my profile – at that time I was 32, 33 years old, I was one of the senior profiles in the Global Network project – so they sent me to Japan without speaking Japanese, without knowing the culture. But then it’s about adapting yourself to the country and it’s about promoting Spanish football.”
Anoro would remain in Japan as La Liga’s delegate there before returning to run the scheme from Madrid in 2019.
You’re constantly challenged by the 360-degree nature of the role because you can one day be speaking on a panel about our new OTT platform, the next day you’re helping to organise a viewing party for one of our headline matches
Keegan Pierce, La Liga Global Network's UK representative
Adapting on every front
The job of the remote delegate has two main parts: learning about the market, and taking care of stakeholders there. Delegates spend time developing relationships journalists and broadcasters, encouraging them to identify more with La Liga as a relevant competition in their territory, and supporting the activities of local La Liga fan groups. They also identify potential commercial opportunities and feed them back to the regional offices and Madrid.
“It’s also about growing the local football,” Anoro adds. “We understand that if football grows in the different markets, La Liga is going to grow. That’s why we also have a close relationship with local leagues and local federations. We’re also quite active meeting and working together with Spanish institutions – the embassies, the Spanish Chambers of Commerce. We represent Spain in some way – football is one of the biggest ambassadors of the country.”
That level of representation also demands a significant degree of adaptability. A former journalist and employee of Major League Soccer and Lagardere who completed an MBA in Spain, Pierce believes he is drawing on the experience of “literally my entire life” in his daily work.
“It’s a unique project to be part of,” says Pierce, “and you’re constantly challenged by the 360-degree nature of the role because you can one day be speaking on a panel about our new OTT platform, the next day you’re helping to organise a viewing party for one of our headline matches. Then you’re talking with a commercial partner that’s thinking about investing in La Liga. You’re oftentimes having to play the role of translator between the local culture and the culture of your headquarters, and so you’re using language and empathy and all these sort of soft skills that are part of it as well.”
La Liga Global Network sets up watch parties for fans across the globe
With no national offices to depend on, and in order to maximise the impact of their presence in the country, the delegates often look to work with local organisations that are a significant part of the local culture.
“I am present in all kinds of events and institutional meetings in Korea to demonstrate that La Liga is physically present in the country,” explains Sangwon Seo, La Liga Global Network delegate for Korea. “An example is the relationship we have forged with the Korean Professional Baseball League (KBO) in which we are exchanging knowledge visits and training talks with an entity that is not known for its links to football but has is hugely popular in this country.”
Seo also works with local social media influencers on a project called ‘Shoot for Love’, part of a strategy he developed to make La Liga feel less distant to Korean soccer fans. Of course, the case for local relevance is easier to make when fans can look to compatriots on the field. Seo points to the presence of Kang-in Lee at Valencia – and Seung-ho Paik at Girona until last season – as being helpful in developing media traction. Delegates around the world have typically made use of current or former players from their nation or region at promotional events.
In Japan, Anoro was able to capitalise on the profile of national team star Takashi Inui.
“He moved from Eibar to Betis and it was right after the World Cup – he’d played an amazing World Cup,” Anoro says. “So thanks to having a person in the market, we thought, why not organise a presentation of the player in Tokyo, meeting the local journalists and the local fans? So we did it, and we got a lot of exposure. More than 100 journalists attended this event.”
Delegates also help to coordinate the work of the league and its local partners on key activities in each territory. Oliver Dodd, the delegate for Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda, was aware of Safaricom’s desire to publicise itself through support for grassroots soccer, and has brought the company together with the national federation and former players to promote a drive for improved facilities.
Reaction and transition
As well as scaling up quickly, the Global Network strategy is designed to be responsive. The league’s regional offices are based in hubs of fixed long-term strategic importance: in the US, Mexico, South Africa, Nigeria, Dubai, China, India and Singapore.
Delegates, however, can have a freer long-term role. “If we identify an opportunity in one market, we open a delegation there,” Anoro says. “We are not afraid to change our initial idea.”
Some of that flexibility comes because delegates are already responsible for a small group of countries in a region, and their duties can be rebalanced to meet demand. Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos are run from Bangkok, for example, while a delegate in Copenhagen looks after the Nordic territories. In other cases, delegates will be moved around.
Sangwon Seo (right) is the La Liga Global Network delegate for Korea
“Israel was not one of the markets that went to at the beginning and then, we saw it could be an interesting market because it’s a strategic country with a lot of startups and a technological industry that is quite active in Israel,” Anoro says. “So first of all, our delegate in France controlled Israel from distance and she identified some opportunities. And then, last year, we sent a delegate to Israel.
Anoro also names Bangladesh, with its three million followers for La Liga across its social channels, as a market of some potential. A pilot event was held for the last edition of El Clasico between Real Madrid and Barcelona “to check whether the feeling is real or not”.
But the market due for the most immediate and significant change in approach is the UK. Pierce is being joined by Javier Del Rio, previously the Nigerian delegate, to begin establishing a permanent London office. This will serve as “an operational base for us” and “a place where we’re going to be looking to meet up with partners”.
“The important thing for me about the opportunity in the UK market – now we’re talking about the fifth-largest economy in the world,” Pierce says. “We’re talking about the country that sends the most visitors to Spain of any country on Earth – we’re talking about 20 million Britons every single year who come and spend time in Spain, whether it’s to see a La Liga match, whether it’s to work, or for pleasure.”
Pierce sees La Liga positioned in the UK, by reputation, as “the best foreign competition in football – the one not featuring British teams”. This, however, has been undercut by uncertainty in terms of its media presence. “We came from a period of a long-standing relationship with Sky Sports as our broadcaster and last year was a year of transition,” Pierce says of a season which began with what was meant to be a long-term deal with Eleven Sports, before it dramatically scaled back its UK activities.
“At one point we actually had three non-exclusive broadcast partnerships, including digital, free-to-air and linear pay-television.”
That set-up has now been replaced, in partnership with Premier Sports, with a dedicated “24/7 English-language channel” that will be the home of live games and all of the league’s other programming. It is a first for any soccer league in the UK, a service Pierce hopes will end the fragmentation and frustration British fans have been experiencing, but also an undertaking that looks set to dominate his agenda.
“We suddenly have gone from being a B2B actor in the market to now being a B2C actor, obviously with Premier Sports as a partner. We want fans to be seeing and hearing a lot more from us because their relationship with us now is not just going to be with the broadcast partner who happens to have the rights to La Liga. It’s going to be purchasing a television product called LaLiga TV and then engaging with La Liga in all of the many ways that are possible.”
A flexible future
Anoro is happy with the progress made at this stage of the Global Network story.
“We have signed more than 30 agreements with local institutions and local leagues,” he says. “We have signed almost a dozen new local and regional sponsorships. And we are present in more than 84 countries. So what’s next? I don’t know. But we will do it for sure because we have young, talented people.”
It is also a scheme that has left its mark for the better, he thinks, on the league’s commercial operations as a whole.
“When this project started, I think in some way, here in the headquarters in Madrid, they saw the project as a threat,” he admits. “Because, look, 60 young people are coming into our organisation and they will change everything.
“But then, after two years, with a lot of work and effort, we have demonstrated that La Liga Global Network is the project of the future for La Liga. And now, I can say and assure people that we are the engine of La Liga. You don’t understand the strategy of La Liga without the international project.”
I can say and assure people that we are the engine of La Liga. You don’t understand the strategy of La Liga without the international project.
Octavi Anoro, the head of La Liga Global Network
For delegates like Pierce, being part of the Global Network provides the impetus for continue professional development – if the individual is willing to take it on.
“You learn every single day,” he says, “and I think the key thing is to never think that you know the landscape because that’s the day that you stop learning.”
The next target for the Global Network, Anoro explains, is to become fully self-financing. He insists that is a goal it is close to achieving, but that it will be only an early step.
“We are in good shape but we can do a little bit more,” he says. “We have pretty high objectives. This year, we want to organise more than 600 activations or activities around the world. So I want to put some speed to these projects – I think we can do more and better, and be better year by year.”