La Liga games in China

Is La Liga really coming to China?

Real Madrid and Barcelona now appear to be closer than ever before to playing regular La Liga games in China – but just how soon could that become a reality, what obstacles still lie in the way and what sort of impact would that have on global sport? 

Javier Tebas may not be a household name in the wider football world, but the president of La Liga has certainly been making waves in the industry in recent days, particularly with reference to expanding the global appeal of his league.

In an interview last week with Murad Ahmed from the Financial Times, here’s what Tebas had to say:

“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.”

In follow-up remarks, he added:

“It would only be a maximum of one or two games per season, just as the NFL and the NBA do. It’s an issue of promotion regarding these markets [USA and China]. If we want to compete with the [English] Premier League or the Bundesliga, we have to create value.”

While Tebas doesn’t confirm that one or more overseas games will definitely happen next year, the FT article cites two people familiar with the discussions as saying that next year is indeed a possibility. In fact, for those who have been following this topic closely, this should come as no surprise. Here’s a quick history of relevant points over the past couple of years:

  • October 2015: Tebas announces plans to play La Liga and Copa del Rey matches abroad “in the medium term” in order to make La Liga the most successful league in the world both on and off the pitch.
  • August 2016: A new kick off slot of 1pm Spanish time (prime time in Asia) on Saturdays replaces 10pm games.
  • December 2016: El Clasico (Real Madrid vs Barcelona) kicked off at 4:15pm Spanish time instead of the previous 8.45pm. [The Madrid derby in April 2017 also followed this pattern.]
  • March 2017: Tebas says the league “will continue to take steps to ensure that [Asia] can enjoy La Liga as much as possible”.
China, Asia, the US or elsewhere?

Again, Tebas didn’t specifically confirm in these brief comments to the FT that China is one of the likely destinations, but the evidence is fairly compelling, if not conclusive. In addition to the stated intentions to take the league global and the two items above that show Asia is a priority, the FT also quotes Charlie Stillitano chairman of Relevent Sports – the company behind the International Champions Cup (ICC) – as saying that “official games in the US, China and other places” are the future for Relevent, adding that there are already “leagues” (note the plural) that are discussing “potentially doing something in the future”, with the FT then ruling out both the English Premier League and the Bundesliga.

It’s possible, of course, that either France’s Ligue 1 or Italy’s Serie A is further ahead in Relevent’s plans to stage regular season games abroad (more on that below). It’s also quite probable that the US is at the head of the line, especially given an El Clasico match in Miami this summer filled the Hard Rock Stadium with 66,000 fans. And while the headlines of the piece refer to “overseas” and “foreign soil”, it’s not a stretch at all to conclude from Tebas’ comments and the wider context that regular season La Liga games in China are now a real possibility.

Following the trend

While it would be a first for a top European league to hold a regular season game in China, there are several other examples of leagues developing their global footprint:

  • The NFL has held an increasing number of regular season games in London in recent years, drawing very healthy crowds and has also expressed its intent to focus on Brazil, Mexico and China, with a game for the 2019 season penciled in for China at this stage, after previously having been slated for 2018.
  • While the two NHL games in China later this month will be preseason fixtures, the league has said it plans to upgrade those to regular season games as early as next year.
  • The Pac-12 basketball league – technically amateur, yet still worthy of discussion due to the money generated in US collegiate sports – has held regular seasons games in Shanghai for the last two years.
  • Meanwhile, the NBA has been in China longer than anyone, though has balked at upgrading its annual set of preseason games into regular season match-ups.

While I’ve long been an advocate for the NBA to play games that really matter here, NBA teams have at least brought all their stars with them to play during their preseason tours of China, whereas European football teams often parade a selection of youth team and fringe players in preseason China games, alienating their knowledgeable Chinese fan base. In other words, it’s more important that the football leagues play games that matter in China than it is for the NBA, because that’s the only way that all the stars would be guaranteed to show up.

When it comes to football, in addition to an increasing number of preseason tours, many of which now come under the ICC banner, Serie A’s Italian Super Cup was staged in China four times from 2009-15. Attendances were respectable, but Supercoppa games in Doha in 2014 and 2016 in front of fewer than 15,000 prove that Serie A bosses are more concerned with receiving some riyals than attempting to grow a global fan base.

In summary, this feels inevitable. It’s already happening in some sports (NFL) and with soccer being such a global sport, football leagues are bound to expand outside their natural boundaries in search of further riches. It’s just a question of who will be first, where will they go and when?

So how soon is soon?

While the article discusses the possibility of regular season La Liga games in China as early as next season, the reality is that it takes an awful lot of preparation to get ready for an official regular season game. In preseason tours, the clubs, players and fans back home don’t really care that much – something that is all too apparent at times – so when things don’t go to plan, the natural reaction is simply to shrug, because it doesn’t really matter.

But with a regular season game, that’s not the case at all. Nothing can be left to chance and if something goes wrong – or, god forbid, it costs the club some points – the clubs will get absolutely hammered on all sides. That’s where the China issue comes in, especially when it comes to the pervasive “cha bu duo” (“it’ll do”) attitude.

With hundreds of employees on the ground in China, the NBA would be by far the most capable league of staging a regular season game that meets the expected international standards, but the other leagues, such as La Liga, only have a handful of employees here. The risk is – and it’s a very real risk – that the European match experience is held at a level more akin to a Chinese Super League game. Everything from the state of the pitch and the training facilities to the accommodation and food could very well be substandard and the risks are obvious.

That’s not to be dismissive, but it’s a reality. When the Manchester derby was washed out in Beijing, the organizers dodged a bullet because they could blame it on the rain – but they already knew weeks earlier that the pitch was nowhere near the required standard. Down in Shanghai, when Demba Ba broke his leg as much as a result of a substandard pitch as a clumsy challenge, it was no surprise to learn that the stadium had previously been hosting golfers in between matches and that the turf hadn’t been relaid for years.

The standard of the pitch is just one example, but regulatory issues could prove to be even tougher.

Then there’s the whole issue of filling the stadium. One of the reasons why the NFL might be delaying their China game is a fear that there simply aren’t yet enough paying fans to fill a ground. Likewise a La Liga match-up of Real Sociedad vs Leganes – both teams in the top five at the time of writing – would hardly get Chinese pulses racing, even if it was a proper league fixture. With the German and English leagues both seemingly against this idea at the moment, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see a Milan derby – Suning‘s Inter vs Li Yonghong‘s AC Milan – as the first European league game in China, one that would also be guaranteed to sell out.

Fan reaction to La Liga games in China

An unscientific survey of reaction to my tweet about this possibility showed a very divided public, with perhaps 70% against the idea. The most popular response was this one:

but plenty of fans around from around the world were excited about the prospect of seeing a “real” game live for the first time. One side issue that was raised is how these games might affect Chinese football – would it boost interest in the sport, or detract from the domestic league? – but that is a topic for another time.

Very Relevent

Given the success of the ICC over the past few years, it would appear that Relevent has the edge when it comes to taking teams abroad. But China is just one of the territories that has featured in ICC tournament play, along with North America, Australia and Singapore. This piece by the always excellent Grant Wahl on the incredible connections that Relevent’s Stillitano maintains is worth a read, but it’s surely an easier prospect for him to stage these games in the US. It’s also likely a lot more profitable, given that US fans (unlike their Chinese counterparts) are used to shelling out top dollar for big sporting events, and Chinese broadcasters are still paying way, way below what their US peers are offering.

The USSF would, of course, have to approve any game in the United States and would no doubt take their cut, but that still feels like a much more predictable route than negotiating with the CFA over both approval and fee, elements that Tebas has already mentioned when discussing these games.

China will always be in the conversation, because of the size of the market and the speed with which it’s maturing, but from a purely financial point of view, La Liga would be better off going west than east – at least for now.

As always, though, China still holds a few trump cards.

Granada and Espanyol are owned by Chinese investors, while 20% of Atletico Madrid is owned by Wang Jianlin, whose Wanda company is behind the club’s brand new Wanda Metropolitano stadium, which is set to open shortly. They, plus Singaporean businessman Peter Lim, who owns Valencia, would far rather see La Liga teams head east if they are to leave Spanish shores.

One of the problems facing the league is that outside of Barcelona, Real Madrid and, perhaps, Atletico, none of the teams in La Liga are box office attractions, but if the Chinese owners of Espanyol and Granada can pull some strings back home, that may open the door for La Liga, even if the marquee teams head elsewhere.

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