Under the leadership of Javier Tebas, LaLiga’s increasingly international outlook has established significant pockets of passionate support in relatively untapped markets around the world.
However, it is in Asia where Spanish football’s most influential organisation has produced some truly spectacular results in recent times.
Three years ago, LaLiga jettisoned its tradition of offering the biggest matches of the weekend late on Saturday and Sunday evenings – and therefore forcing fans in Asia to stay awake into the early hours to watch the live action – by starting to schedule selected matches in lunchtime kick-off slots.
From the 2015-16 season through to 2017-18, television audiences for LaLiga increased by 11 per cent in Europe, 22 per cent in North America, 34 per cent in Central and South America and 48 per cent in Africa and the Middle East. In the Asia-Pacific region, though, the figure rocketed from 225 million to 383 million – a rise of 70 per cent, whilst the value of
LaLiga’s international broadcast rights in the region also increased by 30 per cent.
However, audiences can only ever represent a snapshot of progress, which is why LaLiga has been keen to put down the foundations required to ensure the appetite for Spanish football continues to grow across Asia for many years to come.
At the heart of the league’s international strategy is the LaLiga Global Network, which was established in early 2017, giving young professionals the chance to represent Spanish football’s most famous property around the world.
The project, spearheaded by Tebas and supported by commercial partners like Santander, has led to dozens of representatives worldwide to champion LaLiga’s overseas expansion, boost the value of its international media rights, increase its fan base and generate business opportunities.
LaLiga’s staff within the Global Network also oversee the creation of tailored content for each market and provide local assistance to media and marketing partners, as well as institutional support through strategic alliances with leagues, federations and associations worldwide.
“The LaLiga Global Network has been a very ambitious project,” LaLiga’s international development director, Óscar Mayo Pardo, says. “We have a presence in 45 different markets including more than 12 countries in Asia alone, including Singapore, India and China. Through the Global Network, we work closely with clubs and our representatives to ensure we have a global outlook, but with a local vision in each market.
“Four or five years ago, the aim was to become more and more competitive and grow significantly in regions around the world, using the fact that we have the best clubs and players in Spain as a platform for expansion. There was always a really good opportunity in Asia, especially as it was traditionally not a market that we had focused on in the past.
“The first major change was with the kick-off times, as we understood that if we changed the match slots to be closer to the Asia time zone, then there would be an opportunity to grow. The second major change was to understand each market in Asia and provide tailored content on a country-by-country basis.”
Underpinning the ongoing strategy for Asia are the strands of digital strategy, grassroots development, events and communication – and in all four areas, LaLiga is offering innovation.
In the area of communication, LaLiga’s Madrid headquarters offers a content hub for its clubs, helping to find press-friendly stories and then using copywriting, video and design capabilities to turn these into materials that are ready for wider consumption.
“We are working to create a content hub to distribute materials that can be used in different markets,” Mayo says. “The hub includes different types of content, including editorial, video, interviews, media snippets, analysis and more.”
LaLiga produces materials in 19 languages, including Chinese, Arabic, Japanese, Hinglish, Hindi, Bengali, Thai, Indonesian and Malaysian.
“We’ve secured lots of high-impact media coverage across Asia using this approach,” Mayo says. “Some of the materials are produced in-house and others are created in collaboration with our production partners at Mediapro. It is very important to create different materials and approaches for the various markets as consumers in China, for example, have completely different habits to people in Malaysia.”
In a similar vein, in digital media, LaLiga has achieved significant cut-through with a tailored approach to different markets across the vast continent.
At the centre of this, OTT platforms are providing vital tools for engaging with fans in the continent’s two largest markets – India and China.
Under a three-season deal that began at the start of the current campaign, Facebook will offer live coverage of all 380 top-flight matches per season in the Indian subcontinent. The coverage is available for free on Facebook in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Maldives, Sri Lanka and Pakistan.
Separately, the league is showing matches from its second-tier competition, LaLiga 1l2l3, via YouTube, covering markets like Hong Kong, Japan, India, Korea and Thailand.
“This approach allows us to reach a huge new audience, as part of our work to embrace new media platforms and diversify our offering,” Mayo adds.
Supplementing the more accessible coverage across Asia is an expanding social media presence that is helping to penetrate individual markets.
LaLiga has more than 40 million followers across Asia-dedicated social media platforms, with new channels sprouting up on a regular basis, including a recently-launched Japanese Twitter account, as well as WeChat, Weibo, Toutiao and Douyin in China. Across those five accounts alone, LaLiga has more than 1.9 million followers.
“This is just the beginning for LaLiga’s digital plans,” Mayo says. “We have set up structure now and the team is working hard, so we will see how it develops over the next three, four and five years, but the experiences we have had with Facebook and YouTube are amazing.”
LaLiga’s events strategy in Asia supports its attempts to create special experiences for fans in specific markets.
In October 2018 the league’s ‘watch parties’ around FC Barcelona v Real Madrid, known as El Clásico, drew huge crowds to specially-organised gatherings for public viewings from Shanghai to Kolkata.
Among the highlights of the 13 global events staged by LaLiga were a screening for 7,000 fans in Jakarta and Surabaya, a gathering for 25,000 fans in Kolkata, and an event in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, that attracted 35,000 people.
To add to the unique experience for attendees, former football stars and LaLiga representatives attended the screening events, helping to ramp up excitement amongst the fans.
“In total, we hosted more than 160 events around the world – across 60 countries – last year. This year there will be more public events, including watch parties,” Mayo says. “Each event is different for the local market and we always try to bring the fans as close to the experience as possible, with the help of the clubs and our sponsors. There have been some really fantastic experiences, so we are looking forward to building on our plans this year.”
LaLiga’s commercial partners play a vital role in supporting the league’s international ambitions.
“We are always looking to become more global and obviously we have big brands on board who want to expand their business in Asia as well,” Mayo adds. “In terms of delivering the events, it is a true combination between ourselves, our partners and our clubs. We also have some local partners in specific markets such as Thailand, Malaysia and India who work with us on maximising the impact.
“Having that sort of local knowledge really helps – and that is the case for every market. In China, for example, the most important thing is to work with local institutions to help them to grow the sport in the country.
“We have excellent relationships with the Minister of Education in China, as well as the football organisations in the country, including the Chinese Super League and Chinese Football Association. Through these links, LaLiga focuses on supporting the development of academies and ultimately football players in China.”
Clubs outside the perpetual title-contenders are benefiting from LaLiga’s closer links with influential organisations in China, with the long-term prospect of some of the country’s top stars finding a natural home in Spain in the years to come.
Espanyol forward Wu Lei reportedly attracted an audience of 40 million viewers for his recent full debut against Valencia after switching to LaLiga in the winter transfer window. The club, which already has an academy in Guangzhou, will release special edition shirts featuring Wu’s name in Chinese.
“This is a huge opportunity for Espanyol, but it is for other clubs as well,” Mayo says. “When Chinese players break into the first team, that will give Chinese fans a chance to see their heroes in action, and that can only be a positive for the development of the sport in the country.
“To offer a comparison, the popularity of Formula One in Spain rapidly increased when Fernando Alonso started racing, and it was the same with the NBA and Pau Gasol. With more great Chinese players in LaLiga, the popularity of the league will continue to increase and I have no doubt that if the people who are working hard to improve training and playing standards in China continue on the same path, the country will be one of the top five football nations in the world before long.”
In December, as part of a strategic collaboration between LaLiga and the Chinese Football Association, a new Madrid facility was opened to serve as the first CFA training base in Spain. Chinese men’s and women’s teams will follow LaLiga training, academic and cultural methods at the centre.
Then in January, representatives from 16 Chinese Super League clubs visited Madrid for a four-day programme focused on best practice and building new collaborative projects in areas such as training, security, infrastructure, technology and grassroots development.
LaLiga already had close ties with China stretching back to 2015. Alongside the Chinese Ministry of Education, LaLiga has trained more than 160 coaches over the past three-and-a-half years.
As part of an exchange programme, this season alone, 38 coaches will spend 10 months in China to develop their training programme, while there are hopes that future summer campuses will focus on identifying more talented footballers.
Aside from China, LaLiga has also established academies in Indonesia, while a LaLiga Football Schools project is held in India. In Thailand, the country’s federation and youth league has entrusted LaLiga with developing high-performance training schemes for its national under-16 team and associated coaches.
From development on the pitch to commercial and administrative acumen off it, LaLiga’s involvement in Asia is broad.
India was the focus for a historic two-day event held in November, which was attended by 18 of the 20 LaLiga club presidents and general managers. The attendance by the clubs was seen as vital for LaLiga to help build stronger relations with government officials, sponsors and clubs in India, and build a full understanding of how the two entities can work together.
Meanwhile, in Malaysia, LaLiga last year signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the organisation that oversees football in the country, with a three-year working partnership allowing the Spanish league to share its experiences in the fields of finance, technology and good governance.
With 383 million Asian television viewers in the 2017-18 season, from a region that is home to more than four billion people, LaLiga’s audience in Asia-Pacific still has room for considerable growth.
With upwards of €2m invested in its Asia expansion strategy every year, not to mention the significant resources that are ploughed into the continent, and strategic partnerships that have been crafted to enhance the league’s brand, the sky is the limit for LaLiga
in the most populous continent on the planet.
“We will continue to work on a number of initiatives,” Mayo says. “This will include pre-season plans, and we will soon be able to announce more exciting developments.” Z