If La Liga wants to increase their American exposure, they should focus on how their product is presented, not on bringing games to the United States.
For the past seven years, La Liga has been the highest ranked European league, per UEFA’s Club Coefficient metrics. With Barcelona and Real Madrid leading the charge, and Atletico Madrid, Sevilla, and others not far behind, the Spanish club football scene is full of brilliant rivalries, mercurial talents, and stylish football from top to bottom. Seven of the last ten Champions League winners have been Spanish clubs, as well as six of the last ten Europa League winners.
Why, then, is La Liga so poorly presented in the United States?
First and foremost, the TV rights have been drastically mismanaged over the past few years. While the Premier League has seen their value rise via a TV deal in excess of 6 billion dollars, BeIN, which holds the rights to La Liga in the United States, holds a contract worth a paltry 120 million dollars. Importantly, this contract expires at the conclusion of the 2019/2020 season.
Most concerningly, however, BeIN has been pulled from DirecTV and Comcast’s programming, dropping the number of households BeIN can be found in from over 22 million to under 10 million. The two companies comprise almost 40 percent of the United States market share, and they are the two largest TV providers by subscriber in the country (DirecTV is the number one satellite provider, and Comcast is the number one for cable). For BeIN to not be available in almost half of the United States market is simply unacceptable, and demonstrates a lack of competency from both the league and BeIN.
Much of the controversy surrounding BeIN’s provider issues stems from an FCC complaint filed by the La Liga holders earlier this year, in which they complained that Comcast was offering their channel exclusively in more expensive cable plans than NBC Sports. Indeed, NBC Sports and the various affiliate channels (Universo and local NBC Sports coverage) are offered by Comcast in their base cable channel, which would validate that complaint on the surface. However, the FCC summarily dismissed the complaint on the grounds that “beIN Sports has failed to provide evidence sufficient to support its claim that the programming it would provide under the renewal agreement is similarly situated to the video programming provided by Comcast’s affiliated vendors, NBCSN and Universo.”
This is true. Not only does the NBC family have the rights to the Premier League, they also show events from the NHL, NASCAR, Sunday Night Football, the Olympics, and many golf tournaments. Meanwhile, BeIN Sports USA has the rights to La Liga, Ligue Un, the French and Spanish domestic cups (although confusingly not the rights to the final of the Copa del Rey), the Swedish Cup, and several lesser competitions. It is not surprising that the channel, with its narrow focus, was sold as part of a more premium package; subsequently, it is no surprise that the Premier League reaps billions more from their TV deal.
Aside from the issues with getting people to view La Liga games, BeIN has a major problem with the quality of their broadcast. The colors are dull, the camerawork is often shoddy, and the cameras themselves are much more removed from the pitch than their English counterparts. The primary commentary team of Phil Schoen and Ray Hudson is a far cry from the composed English commentary Premier League viewers are accustomed to. Ray Hudson is, despite his enthusiastic metaphors, not a terribly skilled figure on the mic. He often calls players by the wrong name, and his contributions are more valued for their sheer ridiculousness than for their analysis. Phil Schoen, while more stoic, lacks the traditional European soccer acumen of an English commentator like Martin Tyler or Alan Smith.
One only needs to look at how ESPN has approached their soccer streaming services this year to see how La Liga could be presented. ESPN+, for 5 dollars a month, offers the Serie A, Eredivisie, Allsvenskan, Danish Superliga, and the MLS; in just five months, ESPN+ has amassed over one million subscribers. This is in addition to ESPN’s default soccer programming, which includes several games per week from the MLS and Serie A spread across ESPN’s non-paywalled family of channels.
ESPN presents soccer in a similar manner to NBC: the best matchups from their respective leagues get shown on the primary channel, lesser matchups get put on the secondary channel (for example, CNBC or ESPN2), and other matchups get placed behind a paywall (ESPN+ or NBC Sports Gold, which grants access to every Premier League game not shown on one of the standard channels). I have watched many Ajax games this season on ESPN+; the commentary has been knowledgeable, the camerawork excellent, the streaming quality high. Despite the quality of the league being vastly inferior to that of La Liga, watching the Eredivisie or even lesser matchups in Serie A is currently much more enjoyable than struggling through BeIN’s online streaming.
La Liga going to ESPN would make sense for both parties. ESPN is widely accepted as the largest sports network in America, yet they lack a true counterpart for NBC Sports’ Premier League coverage. The marketability of teams like Barcelona and Real Madrid and the many world class players in Spain would almost certainly boost ESPN’s soccer credibility, and by following the same formula they use for Serie A football, ESPN+ would also receive a massive boost.
The benefits to La Liga would be primarily fiscal. Certainly, having marquee matchups shown on ESPN would boost their presence in the United States. However, the prospect of a gargantuan TV deal to equal their British counterparts should also appeal to La Liga head Javier Tebas. As has been demonstrated by the spending of Premier League sides recently – which includes newly-promoted Fulham spending over 100 million pounds – the TV money enables clubs to attract more talent. Rather than be forced to search for bargains, teams outside of the big three would be able to bring in and retain many more players, raising the quality and thereby the consumer appeal of the league as a whole.
It will not be the same watching a Clasico without hearing Ray Hudson describe the dance-like movements of Lionel Messi. But then again, we already are coming to terms with the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo, whom Hudson dubbed “the Dark Invader.” Messi will not be around forever, and La Liga needs to gain a new TV contract to reflect the vast quality in their league from top to bottom. It should be an embarrassment to Javier Tebas that second-tier English football is being presented better to American audiences than his league, which is qualitatively the best in the world. To avoid the controversy of playing league games in America – a proposal which has drawn unanimous criticism from clubs and players alike, including Gianni Infantino, the president of FIFA –Tebas should instead look to make a TV deal with a better-equipped provider to elevate La Liga’s status. La Liga has many stars, both future and present; they should be allowed to shine.