La Liga goes abroad to try to keep pace with Premier League
MADRID (AP) Spain's main soccer league is fighting back against the commercial domination of England's Premier League and is embarking on an aggressive international drive to introduce its top stars and traditional clubs to a greater audience.
La Liga has the two best players in the world in Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. It also has two of the top clubs in Real Madrid and Barcelona. Now it's trying to find new ways to capitalize on the stardom and keep pace with the growing global appeal of the Premier League.
Local officials fear the Premier League could become the NBA of soccer, monopolizing the top players in the world.
Spanish league president Javier Tebas fears that the spending power of club owners in England could see them buy up all the world's top players.
''We run the risk of having the Premier League become the NBA of football in the next five years, with the rest of European leagues turning into secondary tournaments,'' Tebas said. ''We all know that every talented basketball player discovered anywhere in the world ends up going to the NBA, and if the European football industry and the Spanish football industry don't react, we will also be losing talented football players.''
The Spanish league is doing what it can, from demanding UEFA look closely into the sources of money behind the English teams, to finding its own revenue to be able to compete.
The Spanish league is opening new offices abroad, including in the rapidly growing markets of China and the United States, with its rapidly growing Spanish-speaking population.
''The U.S. is really crucial for our strategy,'' La Liga's general director, Ignacio Martinez Trujillo, told The Associated Press. ''Soccer is going through a revolution there. The market is growing fast and we want to take advantage of this opportunity to do business there.''
The league also recently created an ambassador program in which it will use former stars to help reinforce La Liga's presence abroad. Former Real Madrid stars Luis Figo and Roberto Carlos are among the ambassadors.
''We've been creating the tools to be able to compete with the Premier League financially,'' Tebas said. ''Our clubs need to know that their league is making the investments that will help them keep their talents.''
The league is trying to add value to its product and improve how it's delivered to fans. It aims to create better audiovisual packages to broadcasters and improve the fan experience. The league announced this week that the Copa del Rey will be available through pay-per-view on YouTube this season, and it is launching fan-fest sites to bring together Spanish football enthusiasts around the world, with the first one being deployed in Qatar.
''There is no doubt we have the most important clubs and the most important players, people know that,'' Trujillo said. ''Maybe we need to improve the way we communicate about our product, the way we deliver it, but regarding the competition, there is no doubt that we are the most important league.''
Tebas took over as La Liga president in 2013 and helped reduce the clubs' collective debt from about 700 million euros ($775 million) to just more than 300 million euros ($331 million). He also negotiated new television deals that more adequately represented the importance of its top clubs and players.
Spanish clubs had been negotiating television rights individually, so the league bought back the rights and renegotiated them at a much higher price, going from about 800 million euros in total ($885 million) to nearly 1.2 billion euros ($1.3 billion). Tebas said he expects the 2017 deal to reach $1.5 billion euros ($1.6 billion), which is still far less on an annualized basis than the nearly 7 billion euros ($8 billion) that the Premier League clubs are receiving on their three-year deal.
Tebas has started working to redistribute the television revenue more evenly to try to benefit the smaller teams. The hope is to give them a better chance to compete with the powerhouses of Barcelona and Real Madrid, which have long maintained a rarely-interrupted duopoly in the title race.
Closer competition and a more entertaining product is also a key to rivalling the Premier League, which has a broader spread of contenders.
Part of the reason the Premier League is a step ahead is because England's pay TV market is much more developed than in Spain, which allows clubs to reach a lot more people and negotiate better TV deals. Tebas said England has about 10 million more subscribers than Spain.
La Liga has a potentially bigger problem going forward as a result of Spain's recent push to crack down on tax irregularities involving players, including top stars such as Messi, who will likely stand trial on three counts of tax fraud. Neymar, Barcelona teammate Javier Mascherano and former Real Madrid midfielder Xabi Alonso also have been targeted by investigations which eventually could turn some players away.
Tebas said the league has to accept it might not be able to count on the likes of Messi and Ronaldo, and that makes reform more urgent.
''It's crucial we help our teams keep their talents,'' Tebas said. ''If we can't do that, we will continue to see the Premier League increase its dominance.''
Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni