Javier Tebas in conversation: Getting the lowdown on LaLiga’s global ambitions
Roughly an hour before sitting down with SportsPro, Javier Tebas, LaLiga’s outspoken President, is talking about data and the role artificial intelligence (AI) is playing in the league’s bid for international expansion.
He’s on stage at Sportel, the annual sports broadcast convention held in Monaco, and, while delivering his lecture in Spanish, many members of the audience are listening to a translator via an earpiece.
“As you can see, we know all the people who have access [to our platform],” the 57-year-old says, outlining plans to take LaLigaSportsTV – the multi-sports over-the-top (OTT) service owned by the organising body for Spanish soccer’s top-flight – to more international territories.
“We know when and how they do it,” he continues, “whether they do it through iOS or Android, and also what types of sports they are looking for.” It is unsurprising, really. Data is not a new phenomenon, especially for a forward-facing sports organisation.
With more rights holders adopting direct-to-consumer (DTC) models in a bid to engage global audiences, it does provide an interesting insight into LaLiga’s own strategy and how its clubs are leveraging user behaviour via LaLigaSportsTV, a predominantly non-soccer platform, to tap into overseas markets.
“It is a double objective,” says Tebas later as he describes to SportsPro what LaLiga’s strategy actually entails. “The first is to improve the brand of the competition and, if we can keep growing the value of LaLiga, then we will improve the value of the competition.
“As we grow, the smaller clubs grow with us and, for all clubs of LaLiga to grow, it is absolutely essential that the brand of LaLiga grows first. There are two clubs in LaLiga with the biggest brand, which are of course Real Madrid and FC Barcelona.
“However, you have clubs like Atletico Madrid, which are growing their brand too, and the rest need to follow. It is therefore very important for them to see where their audience is, and the types of countries where they should be [focusing], and to understand the types of opportunities available to them.”
Put plainly, LaLiga and its clubs are in a fight for attention that has sent them on an expedition for information to provide an edge in territories outside of Spain. As an example of how important its international audiences are to LaLiga, the Spanish Football Federation’s (RFEF) decision to move the El Clásico – postponed after recent violent clashes in Barcelona – to a midweek match slot, is a large bone of contention at the time of our interview.
Originally scheduled for a Saturday afternoon, the match has now been penciled in for a Wednesday in December, partially due to match congestion on weekends in the lead up to Christmas. Tebas, who threatened legal action over the RFEF’s decision, cites the “damage” it will cause LaLiga’s reputation and revenues in Asia, where an evening match in Spain would inevitably alienate an entire fanbase that will be asleep by the time Barcelona eventually take on Real Madrid.
“We have followers throughout the world and Asia has the right to see this El Clásico match,” Tebas explains. “LaLiga is a global product and we have to respect all the followers we have throughout the world and we’re not respecting them in this case.”
That battle for attention is being fought worldwide. The US, where LaLiga signed a four-year rights extension with global pay-TV broadcaster BeIN Sports on the eve of the current season, is another staging post for potential brand expansion.
If competition from the National Football League (NFL) and the National Basketball Association (NBA) was not enough, the decision made by Bundesliga, German soccer’s top-flight, to move from Fox and sign a long-term rights deal with US sports broadcasting giant ESPN from the start of the 2020/21 season, will certainly turn up the heat.
“There are always fights between leagues to win competition [for TV audiences] but the US is big enough for everybody,” Tebas continues. “BeIN has been a good partner of LaLiga for four years, we understand each other well. For that reason, it is important to extend with these types of agreements.”
Taking its matches to the States is another route for LaLiga. Villareal and Atletico Madrid are scheduled, in prinicple, to play their December fixture in Miami, marking yet another step for LaLiga and European soccer, in its bid to grow the brand in the US.
“We see already the biggest leagues of America are taking their matches abroad. We are not the first to do this,” says Tebas, explaining the rationale behind the move. “Why does the NFL do it? If the NFL is bringing a game to a city like London, it gives them months in advance to talk about how they are driving importance for their audience in that country.
“It allows the appeal for the entire match to grow, so there is no greater way to show that a fanbase means something to you than by taking a match to their country. For LaLiga, while it means a lot to the fans of the competition, building that connection is also beneficial to growing the brand of LaLiga.”
Though Tebas appears intent on breaking new ground, whether via broadcast, or by physically taking games overseas, his ambition to spread LaLiga, and the Spanish game, does come with boundaries.
While the RFEF has plans to take the Supercopa de España to Saudi Arabia – just as Lega Serie A did with its Supercoppa Italiana in January – the subject is a sore one for Tebas. He says dealing with a country that is “flying the flag for piracy” and has a “a good deal of human rights concerns” is completely counterintuitive to LaLiga’s efforts to combat the theft of its broadcasts by the rogue BeoutQ network in the region.
“[The RFEF] are going to take money from Saudi Arabia for playing this match, which has been robbed from others through piracy, and through BeoutQ,” Tebas argues. “That’s a contradiction.”
While the Middle East nation may appear to be commercially attractive for sports properties, Tebas is certain the long-term ramifications outweigh the benefits. For the LaLiga president, his approach to the matter is clear, with decisions always based on what is going to help expand the league's brand.
Yousef Al-Obaidly, chief executive of the broadcaster most impacted by the Saudi pirates, BeIN Media Group, recently described the response of rights holders to the BeoutQ situation as ‘shambolic', but singled out LaLiga and the Premier League as the exceptions.
From the outside, Tebas' behaviour may seem combative, particularly in the way he shares his thoughts on how Spanish soccer should be run. Yet his straight-talking manner demonstrates a clear vision for what LaLiga needs.
Certain outside voices have raised concerns around the league’s value, citing the continued expansion of the Premier League juggernaut and the departure of one of LaLiga’s most valuable assets in Cristiano Ronaldo. But Tebas seems happy with his hand.
“We have discussions with all of our stake holders, and all of our broadcasters, every season about the value of the competition and nobody made any requests for reduction of fee after the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo,” Tebas continues.
“That is not to say I wouldn’t want him in the league – I would love to see Pep Guardiola, José Mourinho and Jürgen Klopp in the league with Ronaldo, from a business point of view.”
According to financial details released last month, LaLiga expects its TV revenues in Spain to exceed €2 billion (US$2.2 billion) by the end of the current season. That upward curve does, however, have some bumps in it elsewhere, namely in the UK, where Tebas has had his fingers burned over the past 18 months.
“LaLiga is its own premium product in Spain, where there is much less interest in the Premier League,” Tebas continues. “In the UK, the Premier League and the Champions League are premium products, without consideration for us. It’s incomparable.”
The latter of those statements has become increasingly evident since Eleven Sports' capitulation in the UK, where it was forced to relinquish an exclusive three-year rights deal signed with LaLiga in the summer of 2018 halfway through its first season.
Now, after a messy tender process saw a minor pay-TV network in Premier Sports finally secure a long-term deal for LaLiga rights, Tebas admits the league is having to review its regional strategy.
UK pay-TV giant Sky Sports’ decision not to bid for LaLiga rights over the summer may indicate that the league’s stock has fallen in the UK, with the strategic thinking behind the media company’s prior long-term relationship now drastically changed.
According to UK broadcast researcher Enders Analysis, Sky - now owned by the US media giant Comcast - has for the past year signalled that it considers LaLiga a peripheral property compared to original content and drama series.
Whilst there is still an appetite in the UK for Spanish soccer, it is centred primarily on Barcelona and Real Madrid fixtures. The last two El Clasico matches to be shown on Sky Sports during the 2017/18 season accrued a combined audience of more than one million viewers.
For Tebas, the challenge is now rebuilding LaLiga’s brand strength in a potentially big market for growth. To do so, he is trumpeting the opportunities presented by digital players.
He cites the launch of LaLigaTV, which forms part of the Premier Sports deal, as a gateway to partnering with more streaming platforms in the region, including Amazon Prime Video, which also has rights to select Premier League matches.
“It is a very interesting deal that is a new form of distribution for our content and, [while] it is launched on the OTT of Premier Sports, it will also be launched as a linear channel on Sky, Virgin later on, and potentially Amazon,” Tebas explains.
“We have actually circumvented some of the exclusivity that we have had with other deals, so it really sets us up for expanding our brand in the region.”
On the league’s own OTT service, LaLigaSportsTV – which includes 64 sports federations among its rights partners and has 300,000 mostly Spanish subscribers – Tebas is optimistic about the early stages of LaLiga’s digital transition.
While the channel is important in helping LaLiga to understand consumer behaviour around live sports, and data-gathering can help adapt the platform by region, Tebas also references social media as a gateway to audience growth, particularly in territories where the mass population cannot afford long-term pay-TV subscriptions.
“It depends on the region, but, at the moment, those types of [platforms] are a very interesting proposition in regions that are perhaps not the absolute top table,” Tebas explains.
“We have an agreement with the likes of Facebook in the eight countries of the Indian sub-continent, where it is available for free. So, at the moment, they are a good strategic partner for us in some of those emerging markets.”
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