Today, merely thriving in their own countries or even their own continents is not enough for the most successful sporting leagues. They are increasingly ravenous beyond their own borders, in pursuit of becoming even more lucrative. Within this context, La Liga has declared their ambitions for India to become their largest overseas commercial market within five years.
At first glance, this is curious. India’s national team are, as they have been almost uniformly throughout their history, wretched: they are ranked 105th. Football remains towered over by not just cricket but also the growing force of kabbadi. Indian coverage of foreign football leagues is aired exclusively on pay-TV, in a highly fragmented TV viewing market. The small number of free-to-air La Liga matches in Indonesia attracts a larger cumulative audience than the entire season on Indian pay TV, according to Kevin Alavy, managing director of Futures Sport + Entertainment.
But then consider that, within five years, India will overtake China as the most populous nation on earth - indeed, some believe that it already has. Add in India’s growing economy, the burgeoning middle-class, how young people are more promiscuous in their sporting preferences, and the fanatical support that already exists for the sport in Kolkata, Goa, Mumbai and Bangalore, and football’s possibilities become more tantalising. That is why India are hosting the ongoing U-17 World Cup, the first time the country has ever hosted a Fifa global event. It is why the Indian Super League, launched in 2014, had an audience of 41 million for the final last year. And it is why La Liga is attempting to become the Indian football fan’s foreign league of choice.
So far, global superclubs have made occasional forays into India, but have essentially treated the country as an afterthought compared with the USA, and East Asia. No longer. La Liga organised big screen fan parks of an El Clasico last December in Mumbai and Delhi, attracting 20,000 fans, and opened its first office in India last year. “India in particular is a country where we’re seeing major growth in the love for futbol,” says Joris Evers, La Liga’s chief communications officer. “We established a physical presence in the market and will be increasing our effort to promote La Liga to gain more fans in the country.”
Meanwhile, the clubs themselves are becoming increasingly alert to the opportunity that India provides. Last week, Barcelona announced that their legends team would play in Mumbai in January; last year, Barcelona’s president Josep Bartomeu declared that he was “sure we will come to India in the next two to three years.” Barcelona already have two football schools in India, to train players and nurture talent - all the while doubling as a marketing tool for the club too. Naturally, Real Madrid run schools in India too.
La Liga’s great problem in India is simply that it is far too hard to watch, because of the time difference. A game starting at 8.45pm local time starts at quarter past midnight in India, and many start even later. But, this year, something is being done about it. When Real Madrid host Barcelona in the season’s first El Clásico, on December 23, the match will be played at 1pm local time – 4.30pm in India; the first time ever that a Clásico has been moved to this time to make it easier for Asia to watch. The intention is that, every year, one Clásico should be ‘Asia-friendly’ - ideally suited to India and China - and another ‘Americas-friendly’, for viewers in the US and South America.
All of this amounts to down payment on taking La Liga matches to India. Discussions have already begun on taking a friendly El Clásico to India in 2019, just as happened in Miami last summer. Even more significant is the prospect of La Liga becoming the first major European football league to take regular season matches abroad.
The NFL and NBA have already proved how leagues taking matches beyond their borders can help them expand. A decade ago, the Premier League considered doing the same, until the notorious proposal of a ‘39th game’ overseas was shot down. The Premier League still has no intentions of taking regular season matches abroad, but La Liga is pressing ahead with the idea of taking one round of matches a year to foreign lands.
“La Liga is global entertainment and we want to grow the international appeal of La Liga. As part of that effort we are discussing the option of playing some of the league matches outside of Spain. These discussions are still in early stages, but as La Liga we support the idea,” explains Evers. It is even possible that regular season matches could be played abroad next year, although more likely that they will be so from 2019/20. Such a programme could feature games in countries like the USA, Mexico, China, Japan and India.
Naturally, none of this would bring any guarantees, in India or beyond. “Clearly the Premier League has a significant lead - they’ve certainly helped make the market ripe for more futbol,” Evers says of La Liga’s Indian dreams. The Premier League is helped by India being the second biggest English-speaking country in the world after the United States. La Liga must “broaden our story” and develop more interest beyond Barcelona and Real Madrid.
Hence the appeal of taking La Liga matches to India and beyond: what could be a better tool to grow support for teams than have them play matches in other countries? In its global tussle with the Premier League, this might be La Liga’s most important competitive advantage: staging league games in foreign fields, thereby positioning itself as both Spain’s football league and the world’s football league.
So as La Liga’s plans to grow in India and elsewhere loom we’re served a reminder that the Premier League’s global domination is not assured. Its rivals will innovate in any way they can to knock Britain’s most successful sporting export today off its perch.
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