- Network of local delegates grown from scratch has helped increase the pace of regional commercial growth
- League targets regional partners that reinforce its own appeal though grassroots football or exposure
- As Covid-19 rages, league targets FMCG, insurance and IT as areas its expects to bounce back quickly
Since LaLiga put internationalisation at the heart of its commercial growth plans in 2016, the Spanish league operator has increased its international presence to 84 countries and – as a result – grown its sponsor portfolio five-fold.
According to Fergus Geekie, who has overseen global sponsorship sales since joining LaLiga as head of international and commercial marketing in June 2019, the creation of 46 ‘delegates’ – permanent employees whose role is to bring knowledge of specific territories to all parts of LaLiga’s business – has been vital to this growth.
Speaking to SportBusiness this month, he said: “They’re a great asset for us because they can provide the local market knowledge we would not otherwise have in places like Vietnam, Nigeria or Colombia.
“They are also important because they allow us to demonstrate to local and global partners and prospects that we have resources on the ground that can help when activating and communicating.”
Most of the delegates were developed by LaLiga as part of its ‘Global Network’, the talent identification strand that has underpinned its internationalisation strategy since 2016.
Aggressive internationalisation – in sponsorship as well as in media, which is the priority for most leagues – has been at the heart of LaLiga’s attempts to bridge the commercial gap to the English Premier League during the incumbency of Javier Tebas as its president.
But the way it has been done – with value placed above all on getting boots on the ground in as many locations as possible – was inspired not by rival leagues but by Premier League clubs like Manchester United and Liverpool.
Zero to thirty
LaLiga currently holds nine global partnerships and 38 regional agreements. Eight of these regional deals are focused solely on Spain, but the league has also built strong portfolios in Asia (13 partners) and Africa (10 partners).
All these regional partners have been signed since 2016, and the rate of growth is increasing. Of the 14 Asian deals, four were struck in the past year; of the 10 African deals, four were struck in the past year. LaLiga has added five deals since 2016 in China alone.
While the delegates provide local know-how for all aspects of LaLiga’s business, the pure commercial team under Geekie consists of five commercial heads located where they can tackle the key regions for the league: the US, Mexico, India, Singapore and Africa. Geekie says he hopes to hire a Chinese commercial lead in the near future.
Each commercial head seeks agreements independently and runs their own P&L, but partnerships are signed off centrally and must fit LaLiga’s overarching strategy: bringing the league closer to its fans.
Geekie explains: “It’s about communicating a central strategy from HQ and then sharing it out among the regional markets – them understanding what we’re driving. The markets can then work to develop and localise our strategy and drive commercial opportunities from there.”
He adds that the league seeks to leverage international deals to reinforce its own appeal.
There are the partnerships that encourage international fans to experience live matches – as in the agreement with travel agent HIS (the league’s first official partner in Japan).
And there are partnerships that aim to develop the game of football in a specific territory. LaLiga has made this a central plank of increasing its appeal worldwide: Tebas has previously stated his belief that by growing in-country football fandom, LaLiga can become the number two league everywhere.
The January 2020 deal with gambling platform Hollywood Bets in South Africa hit both bases: betting players are offered the opportunity to win match tickets while the partnership also contributes to the development of grassroots football in South Africa.
Regional idiosyncrasies within the global strategy can be seen in deals like the January 2020 tie-up that made mineral water brand NongFu Spring the league’s Official Drinking Water Partner in China until the end of 2021-22. LaLiga brought its media partner, streaming platform iQiyi, into a three-way deal in order to create a more appealing package of rights by including broadcast advertising.
Geekie’s regional commercial heads are encouraged to be creative in the way that they package rights and in the industries that they target. As Ivan Codina, the league’s managing director for the South East Asia region, Australia, Japan and South Korea, says: “[This] allowed us to be the first league and one of the first rights holders to have a partnership in the cryptocurrency space with GCOX. Whether from a B2B or B2C perspective, there are many different possibilities that can happen.”
Signing new global partners is a central part of Geekie’s remit. Six have been added since the internationalisation strategy started in 2016, and two were signed since Geekie’s June 2019 arrival.
“It shows the increasing strength of LaLiga,” says international development director Oscar Mayo. “Six or eight years ago, it was impossible to think that a brand like Budweiser would be closing a global deal with LaLiga on the same level as the Premier League.”
Geekie is keen to see existing regional partners take the step up to the global level, and SportBusiness understands that conversations with a US brand were progressing well before the Covid-19 pandemic struck.
He also encourages his regional leads to expand partnerships within their regions. “In Africa,” he points out, “we’ve had success with telco brands, we’ve got the likes of Orange Egypt , MTN Iran, Zain Sudan and Safaricom in Kenya all as local partners. It’s unlikely they’ll become global partners but because of LaLiga’s strength in Africa, the next phase of our strategy is to look to grow them to cover additional markets in the region.”
While Covid-19 has put a freeze on LaLiga’s sponsorship partnership development – the league has paused ongoing conversations until matches resume – its commercial team is planning tactics for after the pandemic recedes. Already, the league’s analysis has identified FMCG, insurance and IT brands as sectors likely to bounce back quickly.
Geekie says: “We’ve become even more reliant on our insights department during this period as we have revised our commercial approach. Whilst some sectors are suffering, we’ve been looking to identify those outside the usual targets that might have better outlooks using a multitude of resources and robust data.”