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Ligue 1 stages US games to attract new investors and bridge gap to Serie A and the Bundesliga

Joseph DaGrosa has sold his stake in Girondins de Bordeaux (Credit: Getty Images)

  • Ligue 1 staging four-team tournament at Audi Field in Washington DC this week
  • LFP chief Didier Quillot looking for US investors and to improve overseas media rights
  • French soccer ‘still in first or second gear’, says Bordeaux owner Joseph DaGrosa

The EA Ligue 1 Games – a new pre-season tournament which takes place in the United States this week – is designed to help France’s Ligue de Football Professionnel (LFP) “catch up” with its European counterparts in the North American market.

The four-game event is being held at Audi Field in Washington DC – the home of Major League Soccer team DC United – and features AS Saint-Étienne, FC Girondins de Bordeaux, Olympique de Marseille, and Montpellier HSC. There will be two games on July 18 and two more on July 21, with each day’s slate set for 6pm and 9pm Eastern Time.

Sponsored by EA Sports in a six-year deal, the new tournament represents the latest step in LFP chief executive Didier Quillot’s ambitious plan to expand the profile of Ligue 1 and Ligue 2 clubs in the States and to significantly grow the value of LFP international TV rights.

In the next five years, Quillot is looking for Ligue 1 to surpass Italy’s Serie A and the Bundesliga in Germany to become the third-largest league by international TV rights revenue. Ligue 1’s overseas media rights are currently worth around $89.9m (€80m) annually, far less than Italy’s Serie A ($382m/€340m), Spain’s LaLiga ($1bn/€897m) and England’s Premier League ($1.73bn/€1.54bn in the last cycle). The Bundesliga’s international rights are worth roughly $287m (€250m) annually.

As part of this strategy, the Trophée des Champions – the annual match between the winners of Ligue 1 and the French Cup – will be held in the US in 2020. It was previously held at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey, in 2012. The LFP is also eager to develop a working partnership with Major League Soccer and develop academy partnerships with US clubs.

“[Ligue 1] if it was a racing car would still be in first or second gear whereas I would put LaLiga in third gear and the Premier League in fourth gear,” Bordeaux owner Joseph DaGrosa tells SportBusiness.

“It’s crawl, walk, run. We have a long way to go to compete against the Premier League or LaLiga but it’s a question of having a presence [in the US]. If you look at the Premier League and LaLiga, they have an advantage in that they were early movers in the US. In the case of the English Premier League, they also have a language advantage and LaLiga does as well given the large Hispanic audience in the US. The French, German and Italian leagues are a little behind and we have some catching up to do – but I think we can do that,” DaGrosa says.

American outreach is long overdue

This week, Quillot will use the visit to the US to try to gain additional American investment in LFP clubs, a project he has been engaged with for the past year.

As such, consulting firm Elevate Sports Ventures – itself a partnership of industry heavyweights Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment, the San Francisco 49ers, Live Nation, and the Oak View Group –  has been hired to help secure meetings with potential commercial partners for both the league and the participating clubs, as well as to assist with North American media rights, sponsorship deals and ticket sales. A deal has already been secured with streaming service FloSports to broadcast the games in the US and Canada.

Ligue 1 currently has two American team owners. In October 2016, former Los Angeles Dodgers owner Frank McCourt took over Marseille for a reported $45m. The billionaire was followed in November 2018 by DaGrosa, whose Miami-based private equity firm General American Capital Partners (GACP) finalized a $114m deal for Bordeaux.

Paris Saint-Germain had been owned by California-based investment fund Colony Capital from 2006-11 before being bought out by the Qatar Investment Authority.

DaGrosa believes Ligue 1’s new outreach into the US market is long overdue.

“I don’t think the league has made the investment historically the way it has now to venture outside of France. I’ll credit the leadership at the LFP that there is an understanding that sports is a global marketplace and you need to expose your brand outside of France,” DaGrosa says.

Marseille owner Frank McCourt (Getty Images)

“We’re big advocates of that. Not just Bordeaux, but Marseille and other clubs as well who recognize that France is a relatively small, insular market and that we’ve got to venture out beyond that. Historically [Bordeaux] and the league have not devoted much time or energy to develop the US market and that is something we intend to move aggressively on,” he says.

DaGrosa admits it will be a challenge to compete on a commercial level with the Premier League and LaLiga in the US. But he believes that the EA Ligue 1 Games represents an important starting point.

“People love sporting events and this mini-tournament is a good way to establish a toehold in the US market. In our case, and that of Marseille, there is American ownership, and I think we can serve as a pretty good bridgehead to introduce Ligue 1 in a more meaningful way to the US,” he says.

Ligue 1 clubs have ‘more upside from price perspective’

After GACP decided to acquire a European soccer team – to get into the content business, says DaGrosa – the private equity firm explored purchasing a Premier League club and came very close to buying a LaLiga team, only for the transaction to fall through at the due diligence stage.

It was at this point that Bordeaux became available after being put up for sale by French media company M6, which had owned the club since 1999. After a protracted purchase process, fueled by the need to gain approval from numerous third parties, subsidiary GACP Sports eventually bought the club in November 2018. The acquisition was boosted in part by additional investment from parent company King Street Capital Management and Fortress Investment Group.

“We looked at it as the prism of content,” DaGrosa says. “Sports provides content for a content-generated world and we thought of the next 10-20 years that we wanted to be in sports. And the question was within sports, ‘what’s the right sport?’ and we saw soccer as the sport that was going to grow over the next 10-20 years. In soccer ‘where did we want to be?’ and that was Europe.

“And Bordeaux was on a shortlist of fantastic teams and brands that we felt could benefit from the growth in content demand. Bordeaux is a fantastic brand that resonates with people,” he says.

GACP Sports – which is also an investor in global soccer conference company SoccerEx – enlisted the help of accountancy firm KPMG to help with due diligence. DaGrosa, though, did not speak to McCourt beforehand to get his advice and insight, as an American who has invested in French soccer.

“We went into it with eyes wide open,” DaGrosa says. “We did a fair amount of due diligence before we signed on the dotted line.”

DaGrosa believes Ligue 1 represents a good-value business opportunity for foreign investors. “It has far more upside from a price perspective [than other European leagues] and we found attractiveness in the French league through our metrics,” he says. “We see a lot of opportunity through revenues.”

Girondins de Bordeaux face Zenit Saint Petersburg in the Europa League in November 2018 (Getty Images)

DaGrosa says Bordeaux season-ticket sales have increased by 20 percent since the takeover and he is in discussions with several companies regarding potential sponsorship deals.

“We took over after the season started in early November so there were limitations on the ticketing and sponsorship side in terms of what we could do. But we’ve laid the groundwork for some big successes in the subsequent seasons,” says DaGrosa, who spends seven to 10 days a month in Bordeaux and owns an apartment in the city. “Ultimately, it comes down to success on the field but we’re now in position on the commercial side to start to move the needle. I’m very pleased with where we are on the commercial side.”

This week’s trip to the States is the club’s second in 2019. In the spring, Bordeaux’s women’s team played National Women’s Soccer League team Washington Spirit in a friendly at the Maryland SoccerPlex, and spent time in New York City as well.

“It was terrific to bring the women’s team to the US,” DaGrosa says. “I think women’s soccer is really going to explode in the US and is really going to be at the epicenter of women’s sports in the next five to 10 years. I’m proud of the fact that we’ve been making meaningful investments on the women’s side, such as increasing our budget year-on-year by 80 per cent and that will only increase over time.”

DaGrosa concedes that Bordeaux is comparatively not that well-known in the States but says this week’s EA Ligue 1 Games will help the club’s efforts to expand its reach.

“We are starting from a relatively low base compared to a lot of big European clubs. But an advantage is that we have an American ownership group and also Bordeaux is a very well-known city in the US. I think we can leverage that over time,” he says. “The [EA Ligue 1 Games] is a cornerstone to get our story out there.”

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