Boris Gartner is CEO of LaLiga North America, a joint venture between LaLiga, Spain’s top-flight soccer competition and professional association, and Relevent Sports, a multinational media, sports and entertainment group.
Expanding sports properties internationally as a way of growing the popularity of the sport, as well as its leagues, teams and players, is not new. From strictly a business perspective, American leagues—including the NBA, Major League Baseball and the NFL—have been leaders, establishing international offices, taking teams on tour, hosting official games abroad and tailoring their product to cater to fans all over the world. From a fan and community perspective, they have understood they are competing for people’s attention in the broader entertainment industry, not just in sports. Clearly the efforts and investment have paid off.
In the past decade, European soccer leagues and teams have started to take a similar approach, with some more organized and aggressive than others. They have all understood that building a following outside their domestic market not only helps them develop their global fan base, but that doing it properly, and in key territories, directly increases the value of the media rights—the most important revenue line and the one where the most growth will occur in the next decade.
LaLiga has anchored its growth plan over the past three years doing just that. It has built a global presence through 11 regional offices and a network of 46 delegates in 43 countries, with a special focus in the U.S., through the creation in 2018 of LaLiga North America (a joint venture with Relevent Sports), and China (through a joint venture struck this year with Mediapro and Super Sports Media).
But if having a sound internationalization strategy was a key element for sustaining growth and offsetting mature domestic markets before, 2020 has made it clear that it’s now essential to survival. The effects of COVID-19 on the broader sports industry, and in this case on European leagues and teams, has put additional pressure on monetizing fans and followers around the world, primarily from international media rights and sponsorships.
The leagues that hadn’t really prioritized their international expansion before are now playing catch-up and will have to invest aggressively to compensate. With domestic revenues being challenged, however, the only path forward is to open up to outside investors, like we are seeing in Italy and Germany.
Most European soccer leagues and teams want a piece of the U.S. media market, but very few understand what it takes to build a real U.S. strategy or are unwilling to do it. It’s not as easy as getting a WeWork in New York and putting out a press release. The U.S. is the largest media market in the world, but it’s complex. It takes a long-term commitment, significant capital investment and on-the-ground resources that know the market and have a pulse on both the existing and future fan to actually break through. It’s about understanding the nuances of how the sport crosses over to the U.S., what to highlight and how to adapt.
LaLiga and Relevent Sports understood this early on when they decided to launch LaLiga North America. It was not enough for LaLiga to show up every three to four years to sell its media rights. It needed to control the market and own its destiny. It needed a dedicated team and the support of a local partner that could provide deep knowledge of the market and the key players to build relationships with and be invested in the league’s growth. It needed to develop a deep understanding of soccer, its audience and its growth to help drive the sport as a whole. It needed a long-term plan and an operation with independence to be flexible.
The eternal debate about soccer being the “sport of the future” in the U.S. is over. Soccer is not a niche sport when you look at the changing demographics of the country. The U.S. is getting younger and multicultural. And these younger generations—millennials and Gen Z, the most diverse generations in history—have a stronger connection with soccer than previous generations.
A Pew Research Center study from 2020 showed that 48% of Gen Z is not white (within this group, 25% are Hispanic), compared with 39% of millennials (17% Hispanic), 30% of Gen X (12% Hispanic) and 18% of Early Boomers (4% Hispanics).
A 2017 Gallup poll showed that among adults aged 18-34, soccer was tied in second place with basketball as a favorite sport to watch, trailing only football. Some 11% of respondents put soccer at the top, alongside basketball, while 30% chose football. Only 6% of this demo chose baseball as their favorite sport to watch. This is particularly interesting when compared with all adults, where soccer was fourth at 7%, trailing baseball (9%), basketball (11%), and football (37%).
Multiple catalysts have helped the growth of soccer over the past years, including the dominance of the U.S. Women’s National Team, the wider availability of games from around the world on TV, OTT and digital services and more Americans playing in the top European leagues. All of those factors are cyclical, but the changes in demographics are not. This demographic reality is the main pillar that supports these other factors and guarantees that soccer in the U.S. will only continue to grow.
Prior to joining LaLiga North America, Gartner held executive positions at Grupo Televisa, Univision Communications, and Fusion Media and has been recognized by Leaders in Sport 2020 Leaders Under 40.