On what promised to be a frenetic day of panel sessions and debate, Soccerex chairman Tony Martin kicked off proceedings with the kind of welcome speech that has become a familiar feature at sports industry events in recent times.
“The most important sport in the world has been fouled,” Martin said, alluding to the recent scandals within Fifa and its confederations in the Americas. “Some serious red cards have been issued. The process of restoring the credibility of the game starts now.”
Good job, then, that just down the road at the InterContinental Presidente hotel, representatives from all 209 Fifa member associations are meeting this week for Fifa’s 66th congress and the first since Gianni Infantino was elected president of the embattled federation in February. Reforms and how best to implement them are high on the agenda in a momentous few days not just for soccer in the Americas, but for the global game as a whole.
Spanish in position
There can be no denying that this year’s forum has a distinctly Spanish flavour - and not only because FC Barcelona maestro Andres Iniesta's family winery, Bodega Iniesta, is here ffering free wine tastings to delegates.
Of all the many entities present this year, it is La Liga, an institutional partner of the event, that is going biggest as it bids to assert its self-proclaimed position as “the best league in the world”. The La Liga Lounge, a sleek VIP area reserved for the great and good in attendance, dominates one corner of the exhibition floor, while a large delegation led by the league’s president Javier Tebas has been a vocal and visible presence throughout.
Downstairs on the main stage in particular, the La Liga contingent enjoyed near-constant airtime on day one, with much of the day’s discussions dominated by representatives from the league and several of its past greats. First up was Raúl Gonzalez Blanco - or Raúl, to you and me. The Real Madrid legend and one of the most prolific strikers of his generation was speaking in conversation with his former boss, the Argentinian 1986 World Cup winner Jorge Valdano.
Fringe swiped effortlessly to one side, Raúl was in relaxed mood as he reflected openly on his storied career, recalling his rise through the ranks at Real, the experience of “falling in love” with the Bernabeu, his relationships with his fellow Galacticos, and the weight of expectation that comes with representing the biggest club in world soccer.
“You have to be prepared not only physically but mentally,” he said. “There have been many players who haven't really acclimatised to the fierceness of the Bernabeu.”
Raul, whose glittering playing career took him from Spain to Germany and, more recently, Qatar and the US, also spoke at length about his new life as an executive heading up La Liga’s North American office in New York.
“We need to give more value to the La Liga brand in the US, so the fans can know more about the clubs and Spanish football,” he told SoccerexPro following the conclusion of his session.
“Everyone knows Barca and Real Madrid, they are global brands, but our league has more fans all around the world. In the USA the sport is in development and growing up. We have an opportunity to collaborate to try to develop young players. Football in the US is missing an idol. We need to create it.”
Next to take the stage from the Spanish contingent was Fernando Sanz, the former Real Madrid and Malaga defender who now works as La Liga’s general director for MENA and international projects. Sanz presented on the league’s international expansion ambitions, outlining its development projects around the world and providing an overview of its long-term game plan.
Needless to say, that plan is a bold one. According to Adolfo Bara, La Liga's suave and ever-eloquent managing director for sales and marketing, the league’s aim is to increase the value of its newly collectivised international broadcast rights by way of broadening the reach and profile of its brand globally. The ambition, he said, is to generate €2.5 billion a year from the next round of rights sales, up from around €1.6 billion a year in the current cycle. Here more on that in next edition of SoccerexPro, out later this year.
Joining Bara on stage was Gary Hopkins, the soccer president and chief executive at CSM, the international marketing agency that La Liga appointed in March to represent its commercial and sponsorship rights worldwide. Both Bara and Hopkins set out their plan of attack in North America and beyond, with Hopkins suggesting La Liga’s international profile would actually benefit if its two greatest teams were to have a rare off season.
“We need Real Madrid and FC Barcelona to have a really bad year next year,” he said, pointing to the way in which Leicester City’s unexpected Premier League title has revitalised England’s top flight and made headlines around the world.
Conceived as a celebration of the centenary of South American confederation Conmebol, this summer’s Copa América Centenario looks a mouthwatering sporting and commercial prospect, bringing together the best 16 national teams from across the Americas in the US in June. Yet the tournament nearly crumpled under the weight of corruption scandals engulfing Conmebol and its North and Central American counterpart, Concacaf, last year.
Unsurprisingly, the tone during a late morning session featuring the event’s hosts and commercial representatives - plus US goalkeeping great Brad Friedel - was one of positivity. The panellists steered clear of the troubles that have marred the tournament’s build-up, choosing instead to focus on the sporting spectacle to come.
All of them were in agreement that the Centenario would provide an important showcase for the US hosts, highlighting America’s passion for the game and demonstrating the country’s major event hosting capabilities with a potential bid for the 2026 Fifa World Cup on the horizon.
Whatever happens this summer, there is no denying that the Centenario is already proving to be the commercial success many expected it would be before the Fifa corruption crisis drove it to the brink of collapse last year. Court Jeske, vice president of international business at Soccer United Marketing (SUM), the agency selling sponsorship for the event, was particularly pleased to report thatall commercial inventory for the tournament has now been sold.
That success will only fuel the argument that the one-off event should become a regular occurrence. Pedro Trengrouse, a professor at Brazil’s Fundação Getulio Vargas, said he believed a cross-continental tournament would be a game-changer for soccer in the Americas, even if scheduling and logistical issues may be difficult to overcome.
Leagues of their own
For all the quality of the first day’s discussion, the highlight session of the day was saved for last. Titled ‘League growth essentials’, the panel saw four big hitters in the industry - MLS commissioner Don Garber, Premier League co-founder David Dein, La Liga president Javier Tebas and Enrique Bonilla, president of Mexico's LigaMX - discuss the critical factors necessary for the commercial growth of a league.
Dein, who has sat on the Arsenal board since 1983, opened up with a personal slideshow highlighting the reasons for the Premier League’s much-heralded success. He suggested that, among other things, a close bond between the 20 competing teams has been critical to the growth of the league, where grounds are regularly filled to well over 90 per cent capacity.
While the general consensus among the panel was that the Premier League leads the way economically thanks largely to its colossal TV rights income, Tebas insisted the strength of a league cannot simply be measured by revenues. His view is that while great disparity still exists within La Liga, it has done little to hurt Spanish teams’ preeminence when it comes to continental success.
“The Premier League has a Cinderella story but when we play against Europe, we win."
“The Premier League has a Cinderella story but when we play against Europe, we win,” he said bluntly, citing the upcoming all-Madrid Uefa Champions League final and Sevilla’s recent Europa League dominance.
That kind of English-Spanish banter permeated the entire session, with Dein at one point congratulating Tebas for La Liga's "long overdue" switch to a collective distribution model and for "following the Premier League's example”.
Meanwhile, there were also regular tips of the hat towards the charismatic Bonilla, whose LigaMX competition continues to grow in its domestic market and is outdoing all but the National Football League (NFL) when it comes to TV ratings north of the border in the US.
As for Garber, who had spent much of Tuesday doing the rounds on Mexican TV, he continued to talk up the huge opportunity that exists in MLS, a rapidly maturing property which remains intent on expanding in just about every conceivable area.
“Sports is a US$100 billion business in the US,” he said. “MLS is just a small part but we have to continue to grow dramatically over the coming years. I have no doubt with the owners we have and the influence our country has globally and the Hispanic market, it’ll grow to be a bigger player in the global football market.”
Later in the session, which took place before one-time Fifa presidential candidate Prince Ali of Jordan, an exchange between Dein and Garber drew laughs from the always engaged audience. When Dein suggested England could host a Fifa World Cup next week, Garber fired back by saying America could “host it tomorrow”. Not to be outdone, Dein then seemingly tried to cut the kind of deal Fifa’s new reformist management would surely frown upon. "We'll take 2018 if you take 2022,” he said.
The Soccerex Americas Forum is taking place in Mexico for the first time. Featuring on day two: Alexey Sorokin, chief executive of the Russia 2018 Fifa World Cup local organising committee; a panel on the Hispanic influence on the soccer business in the US; and past stars including Carlos Alberto Torres, Gaizka Mendieta and Jorge Valdano sharing their memories of the finest teams they have played for and against.
The latest commerical details, groundbreaking interviews and industry analysis, free, straight to your inbox.
Sign up today to receive the newsletter.
With the increasing value being attributed to young players, this report provides insight into the hottest prospects on the market.
Soccerex Football Finance 100 is an exclusive annual report that compiles a ranking of the world’s most financially powerful clubs.
Follow us on twitter to receive our latest market insight, industry interviews and news about our upcoming events.