Spanish Armada | LaLiga tries to end EPL hegemony with US expansion

  • Biggest achievement so far is the creation of US academy
  • Media deal with beIN Sports helps to cater for fans in multiple languages
  • League hopes to host overseas game in US

LaLiga USA is one of 10 overseas offices the Spanish football league has opened across four continents in the past four years.

Based in New York City, it plays a key part in LaLiga president Javier Tebas's ambitious plan to end the Premier League's hegemony in the global game. 

The overwhelming success of 'El Clásico Miami' last summer – when a capacity 66,014 crowd witnessed Real Madrid and Barcelona lock horns on US soil – indicates just how important the American market is to LaLiga. Little wonder steps have already been taken to stage a 'real' game in the States.

LaLiga's US office made an immediate splash in December 2015 when it was announced that Raúl, the Real Madrid legend, would be its inaugural country manager.

Since then progress has been slow but steady as LaLiga has tried to make its presence more widely felt in the States and learn more about the market and its local fans.

The biggest achievement to date has been the creation of a youth academy in Orlando, Florida, in collaboration with Disney. 

A close relationship has been established with US broadcaster beIN Sports, while there are burgeoning collaborations with Major League Soccer and the NBA. No sponsorship agreements have yet been made but the league office has helped promote existing partners through a series of US-based initiatives.

Carlos Pérez, Raúl's successor, spoke to SportBusiness International about the challenges and opportunities LaLiga USA has encountered in the past two years.

Small staff but big ambitions

Raúl was a natural fit to become LaLiga USA's first country manager. Aside from his name recognition, Raúl was already in New York, having just retired from the game after a stint with the New York Cosmos, and spoke excellent English.

With his connections in the game, Raúl quickly established a working relationship with MLS and used his high profile to begin conversations with potential sponsors. "Raúl was great for us as he opened several doors," says Pérez.

At the 2016 MLS All-Star Game, for example, Raúl worked on a series of activations to tie together Tag Heuer's role as the game's official time keeper and as a new LaLiga sponsor.

A return to his beloved Bernabeu was always on the cards, though, and ahead of his move back home last summer, Pérez joined the office in January 2017 to ensure an extended handover period.

Pérez, who worked in the Cosmos front office as well as at Málaga, is one of just two staff members in the LaLiga USA office, alongside Rebeca Díaz González, a business development delegate. Their job is to "do everything".

"My mission is to have as many meetings as I can with companies, leagues, federations, associations," says Pérez. "Also I try to get around the US as much as I can – we try to be in every single web in this country."

A quick glance at Pérez's Instagram page shows the extent of his recent travels: the NBA All-Star Game, the Super Bowl and the MLS Cup final among other events.

"We try to promote LaLiga, we try to promote brand awareness, we try to be close to our fans with fan engagement; we try to help all our clubs when they come to the US to do something, play a game or open an academy; we are also here to get some sponsors for our clubs," Pérez adds.

"It is very important to have an office here so you can show to the sponsors that we are here and not just coming to get the money and leave. This is a long-term project. 

"Why New York? It is the epicentre of the world and every single company and league is based in New York."

Unlike Bayern Munich's US operation, LaLiga does not have a specific American Twitter account, sticking for now with its global English-language presence. "The LaLiga English social media account is run by an American working in Spain – it is focused on the US market," says Pérez. "I don't think we will have a specific US social media account but maybe in the future."

As for adding staff to the NYC office in the future, Pérez is cautious. "It depends on how we grow. For now we have enough. If we need to open an office in the West Coast then we will do that. We have [many] offices around the world so it is not a problem for us to do that." 

Bringing LaLiga magic to Disney World

"It's a dream come true," says Pérez of LaLiga's youth academy at Disney World in Florida. "Disney is a huge, huge company and to have LaLiga and Disney together is amazing."

The academy, located at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex near Orlando, is a year-round operation that promotes Spanish soccer culture and LaLiga training methodologies to American children and coaches alike. 

There are also tournaments and visits from LaLiga coaches, current and former players, and photo opportunities with the Primera División trophy. 

In January, the academy hosted a clinic with David Villa, the New York City FC forward and a LaLiga global ambassador. A contest was created in partnership with sponsor Tag Heuer to win places at the clinic via some of its US boutiques.

"This was this the first deal I finalised when I came to the States," says Pérez. "We have a little over 200 kids and the plan is to have 500 so we are growing. We support this academy a lot as it is our biggest project in the US right now."

Pérez is hopeful that the tie-up with the Disney Company will lead to commercial opportunities but it is early days. "We have been partners only for a year," he says.

Spanish clubs Barcelona, Valencia and Levante have their own youth academies spread around the States; Real Betis, Málaga and Las Palmas will join them soon.

The presence of the LaLiga USA office is of huge value to these clubs as they look to develop their brands overseas. "We help them, support them, give them advice – which markets are better for them or which type of academy they need to be involved in," says Pérez.

Last summer, the US office helped bring the prestigious LaLiga Promises International tournament for under-12 club sides to New Jersey. Players such as Karim Benzema, in the US for Real Madrid's summer tour, helped lend their support, while LaLiga ambassadors Christian Karembeu and Kiko also took part in an All-Star Game.

Developing close ties with beIN Sports

BeIN Sports has been LaLiga's US broadcaster since 2012 and has the exclusive rights up until 2020. 

While beIN Sports may not have the audience of Fox, ESPN or NBC, LaLiga is clearly very happy working with a network that caters to fans in multiple languages. The league saw a 16-per-cent increase in viewership on beIN Sports en Español last year.

"BeIN Sports is doing a really good job," says Pérez. "It is a small broadcaster for the States but they are working really hard and we have increased our audience a lot in the last year. We are really happy with beIN Sports right now and we are confident that beIN will grow and that we will grow together."

LaLiga USA and beIN Sports also work together in a commercial capacity. Their main initiatives thus far have been staging watch parties for El Clásico matches, in both New York and Miami. Special guests at these events have included Raúl, Villa and former Barcelona midfielder Gaizka Mendieta – all LaLiga global ambassadors.

As well as the chance to bring fans together, these events also provide opportunities for LaLiga sponsors to gain visibility and activate. In April 2016, El Clásico was shown on a giant screen in Margaret Pace Park, Miami. Beer brand Mahou activated around a bar, a series of giveaways to fans and a social media campaign.

More El Clásico watch parties are planned this year – following feedback from previous attendees – and events to showcase other teams in the league are also being considered. "We will have two or three watch parties for El Clásico this year," says Pérez, "one in Miami in collaboration with beIN Sports and maybe one in Los Angeles and probably one in New York. 

"We also are trying to have some small watch parties. We really know that Real Madrid and Barcelona are the best teams in the world and we know people want to have something with them. But from the LaLiga side we also have to show that we are not just Real Madrid and Barcelona – we have 20 teams. 

"That is why we want to have a smaller watch party, maybe with Real Madrid or Barcelona or maybe not, just to show to our fans that we also support Málaga, Betis, Villarreal… every single team."

Search for new sponsors

LaLiga is yet to sign any new US sponsors, but Pérez is confident of finalizing at least one deal before the summer.

"We are working on getting sponsors now. We don't have any now but in the past year we have had several meetings with big companies to try to convince them to be our sponsors," says Pérez. "We have three or four plans that we are finalising now and we are planning to close a deal in the next six months."

Pérez is not targeting any specific sponsors or sectors – "we are open to every single brand" – but cannot sign a company that clashes with LaLiga's principal partners: another bank couldn’t be brought on board due to Santander's deal with the league.

LaLiga USA tries to bring on board sponsors itself, through agencies or with the help of partners like beIN Sports. Pérez adds: "It is difficult in both Europe and the US to find sponsors as there are so many properties in the sports business world.

"We are a new brand in the States – we are only here in a year and a half and we have the competition of the major leagues here, so it is tough for us."

As much as LaLiga is in the States to increase its brand awareness, the office was also set up to learn best practices and key strategies from the major US sports leagues. So far LaLiga has developed relationships with NBA and MLS.

"We try to share knowledge because we have a lot of things to learn. For example, in the digital perspective," says Pérez. "We are trying to improve in digital and it is good to share information and learn from different properties. We have had several meetings with the NBA in the past month to learn about digital and communications."

The grand prize – a 'real' LaLiga game in States

Pérez has made concerted efforts to develop a relationship with the NFL, principally to learn why the league's international matches, in London, have been such a success.

Last September, following 'El Clásico Miami', LaLiga president Javier Tebas revealed that he was working with Relevent Sports – founders of the International Champions Cup – to bring a LaLiga game to either the US or China.

Planning is still very much in the early stages. "We are working hard with the ICC to make this happen. It's a conversation we opened six, seven months ago and it's a really difficult proposition but I am pretty sure we are going to make it," says Pérez. 

"But it takes time as it depends on the teams but we also have to talk to Fifa, Uefa, the Spanish federation. But we are working on it. We have a good relationship with the ICC and they look after every single European team when they come to the US – they have the contacts and the venues. That will be helpful for us if we decide to bring a game to the US." 

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