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Long-term strategies drive LaLiga’s accelerating international expansion plans

Having established solid foundations for international growth through the establishment of its Global Network over five years ago, LaLiga’s expansion into new markets is gaining momentum, as international director Octavi Anoro explains.

The benefits of LaLiga’s drive to broaden its horizons beyond the Iberian Peninsula in recent years are continuing to materialise as the Spanish football league operator sharpens its focus on long-term growth.

This was illustrated by a spate of business-to-business commercial and strategic partnerships announced by LaLiga, spanning countries from Korea to Mexico, in the days leading up to the start of the 2022-23 season in August.

Such deals have been made possible by LaLiga’s concerted efforts to establish a worldwide development plan comprising delegates and executives who have been fuelling the operator’s strategic ambitions since the opening of the league’s first international office in Dubai back in 2014.

The launch of the LaLiga Global Network in early 2017 supercharged the league’s growth worldwide, with specialists hired to forge connections, build contacts and establish valuable links with key stakeholders in markets across the planet.

More than five years on, the Global Network has a presence in 41 countries through 44 on-site representatives, with about a dozen more supporting the project from Madrid. In total, LaLiga’s international efforts span 90 countries, including 11 offices in key locations and two joint ventures in the United States and China, which are considered to be LaLiga’s top-priority markets overseas.

LaLiga’s international director Octavi Anoro

Accelerating plans

According to LaLiga’s international director, Octavi Anoro, over the past year, more than 50 international projects have been monetised – as many as the total across the previous four years of the Global Network.

This acceleration, he explains, underlines the financial sustainability of the international project, which now generates a comfortable bottom-line surplus, even though annual costs run into single-figure millions of euros.

However, Anoro adds, the apparent shift in gear also represents a natural evolution for a project that has been able to retain its talent with remarkable efficiency. Some five-and-a-half years on from the launch, only two of the Global Network’s representatives have left LaLiga for pastures new, while more than 15 have secured internal promotions.

Anoro, who previously headed up the Japanese office for more than two years, believes the flexibility of the project, which prioritises the wellbeing of staff, is key to ensuring a coordinated, connected and cohesive approach across such a sprawling landscape.

“We have found the right formula for coordination, and our people are very happy with us and believe in the project,” says Anoro. “LaLiga has a long-term vision, but within that, our annual business plans with each office and representative are the same across the world. For the first couple of months after July 1, it is about aligning delegates and their business plans, and then we coordinate with them via Madrid through quarterly follow-ups.

“Towards the end of the season, as long as the representative has been in place for at least a couple of years, we will ask them whether they would like to change country for a new challenge. This keeps the project fresh and flexible, and it keeps everyone motivated. For example, in the summer after Covid-19, we processed 10 rotation requests. We have young and talented people around the world and they want to grow, and we want to offer them opportunities to do that.

“It is also a good thing if they rotate. We don’t really want someone working in the same market for 10 or 15 years. We have seen with the rotations that people have introduced new ideas into new markets, which is very healthy.”

Media rights value

LaLiga’s international strategy is built on three core aspirational pillars – to increase the value of the league’s brand and international media rights, to reach new audiences, and to generate business opportunities for the body and its clubs.

In terms of the first metric, LaLiga is on an encouraging trajectory. In the previous three-year cycle, between 2019-20 to 2021-22, the value of the league’s international rights increased by 30% in comparison with 15% for domestic rights.

With rights-sales processes ongoing for the current cycle from 2022-23 onwards, Anoro expects the value of international rights to surpass that of domestic rights for the first time by the middle of this decade.

This is in spite of LaLiga losing two of its most marketable stars in recent years. Between 2009 and 2017, whilst they were wearing the colours of FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, respectively, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo were the only winners of the Ballon d’Or – the widely recognised world player of the year award. However, Ronaldo left Real for Italy’s Juventus in 2018, and Messi exited Barcelona for Paris Saint-Germain in France last year.

According to Anoro, the departure of two superstars who attracted global followings on their own forced LaLiga to be proactive in exploring new opportunities.

“One-hundred per cent, we had to rethink, but this gave us the opportunity to evolve,” he says. “We had to mitigate the fact that these players were leaving by reaching new audiences, with the support of our Global Network. The key to this was to connect with the local media in each market and work hand-in-hand with broadcast partners, as well as digital influencers.

“It’s about leveraging the LaLiga brand – in combination with the attraction of Spain as a destination – and making the most of having relevant players for certain markets, and not necessarily just the big stars, and then creating a buzz around them.”

New portals of interest have emerged in the absence of Messi and Ronaldo. As an example, Anoro explains that Real Mallorca was the most popular LaLiga team in South Korea and Japan last season, due to the presence of respective national team stars Lee Kang-in and Takefusa Kubo in the team.

Reaching new audiences

Worldwide, Anoro views under-40s as the key battleground for reaching and retaining new followers – and LaLiga has made significant progress in that regard. Across 17 platforms, the league has more than 155 million followers, and rising, as more digital initiatives are explored.

For instance, LaLiga was the first European sports league to join gamer-focused streaming channel Twitch two years ago. In April 2022, following a landmark agreement with the Mediapro agency and TikTok, free-to-air channel Gol broadcast live coverage of Real Sociedad’s LaLiga clash with Real Betis on the social media platform.

First-mover advantage such as this has, according to Anoro, helped LaLiga to buck the ageing fan base trend witnessed by almost every other major professional sports league worldwide. It also helps that LaLiga has adopted a realistic outlook in the context of optimising resources and efforts.

Anoro acknowledges, for example, that the dominance of Serie A clubs in the late 1980s and 1990s ensures that Italian clubs attract a healthy older following worldwide. Furthermore, the Premier League’s decision to schedule games at appealing times for Southeast Asian markets in the 1990s and early 2000s – several years before LaLiga endeavoured to do the same – gave the English league a head start that is difficult to disrupt.

“It is difficult to change the mentality of a 40 or 50-year-old fan. I saw this when I was working as a LaLiga Global Network delegate in Japan,” Anoro says. “So, if we want to grow in the long term, we have to reach new, younger audiences who are 10, 15 or 20 years old. We are seeing that the average age of our fans is getting younger, but that is down to how we are changing the way the consumers can consume the product, and by facilitating the shift from pay-television to OTT (over-the-top streaming).”

In April, the new LaLiga Pass OTT platform launched in Indonesia and Thailand, offering coverage of the top two tiers of Spanish football, as well as access to the in-house television channel, LaLiga TV. In August, a separate direct-to-consumer streaming platform, LaLiga Plus, was launched in China after the league finalised a six-year agreement with Streamline Media Technology.

Business opportunities

LaLiga’s confidence about its increasingly youthful audience is borne out of research carried out by commercial partner Electronic Arts, which outlined how “youngsters are interacting with our product in different ways”, Anoro adds.

Such a belief is also underpinned by the fact that the likes of EA – a brand that is synonymous with gaming – is expanding its association with LaLiga. In August, it was announced that EA Sports would be the title sponsor of all LaLiga competitions in a multi-year deal that will begin with the 2023-24 season. EA previously supported the launch of the eLaLiga Santander esports competition in the 2017-18 campaign.

“The EA partnership is a great opportunity for us to reach new target audiences and engage younger fans,” Anoro says. “We are going to work with them across lots of projects to enhance our image with new generations of fans, just like we do with other commercial partners like Microsoft in tech, Puma in merchandising, and the likes of Sorare and Dapper Labs in the Web 3.0 space.

“Our association with brands and companies like these show how far we have come in a short space of time. Eight years ago, LaLiga had eight sponsors, but now we have more than 50 sponsors spread across various territories and regions. Our growth has been incredible.”

Power of football

The success of LaLiga’s global commercialisation strategy has coincided with the league’s expanding corporate social responsibility initiatives.

Earlier this year, for example, the LaLiga Camps project was launched within the LaLiga Grassroots initiative, to promote football within communities across the globe. The immersive experience is based on the concept of teaching values through sport in a multicultural environment, with the latest technology available to support the development of players of different ages and levels, all under the guidance of expert LaLiga coaches.

The first Spanish edition of LaLiga Camps took place in July in Madrid, with the project also hosting training camps this year in South Africa, the UK and US. Indeed, LaLiga North America opened a new academy in Texas in September, joining two existing academies in the US, after bringing 118 youngsters from North America to Spain in March through LaLiga Select, a talent spotting and development programme created in collaboration with the ISL Agency.

From major European football hotbeds to emerging markets like Angola and Tanzania, LaLiga has been nurturing various sponsorship, licensing, media and development projects. The league has also been providing consultancy and services for leagues, federations and clubs through LaLiga Tech, which was spun off into a standalone business in 2020, allowing cutting-edge technology and data provisions to be commercialised through a single entity.

The next step is for LaLiga’s bold strategic vision to filter through to its clubs even more effectively.

In December, the LaLiga general assembly ratified LaLiga Impulso (Boost LaLiga) – a strategic agreement with global investment fund CVC to promote the global growth of LaLiga and its clubs.

Clubs that endorsed the project were given access to a €2bn (£1.7bn/$2bn) war chest to strengthen various strands of infrastructure and international development, including in digital media.

“Our support for clubs will be a strategic priority for us over the next year,” Anoro explains. “We have been doing a good job in developing our digital media capabilities over the past five years, but there is room for improvement with some of our clubs. We need to focus on helping the clubs to enter new markets.”

One international project that LaLiga is keen to resurrect is its long-held ambition to host a regular-season game in the United States.

“This is on standby right now, but we would love to play an official game in the country one day,” says Anoro, who adds that any such event, like the league’s broader international development plans, would be more than just a one-off initiative.

“It is not just a cliché. Our projects are part of long-term strategies in all markets,” he says. “We have people living and working in these different countries, and they have excellent local knowledge and are able to build close relationships with stakeholders. That makes a difference.

“We want to establish roots in all of our markets, and although our business plans are year-by-year – as our industry changes rapidly – we have a long-term vision that stretches long into the future.”

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