La Liga is planning games in the US. That's both exciting and problematic

Yahoo Sports
Barcelona and Real Madrid played a preseason game in Miami last summer as part of Relevent’s International Champions Cup. (Getty)
Barcelona and Real Madrid played a preseason game in Miami last summer as part of Relevent’s International Champions Cup. (Getty)

It has been discussed for more than a decade. Finally, it could be happening: Big-time European soccer might be coming to the United States.

La Liga on Thursday announced a groundbreaking plan to play one game per year in North America, possibly beginning with a stateside match over the latter half of this season. It would be the first match held outside of Europe in the league’s history, and the first top-tier European league match ever to grace American soil.

However, no specific plans – teams, dates, venues – are in place. La Liga appears to have announced its intentions prematurely – perhaps in part to hype up a unique 15-year partnership with Relevent, the American company behind the International Champions Cup, and perhaps even to drum up interest in the league’s U.S. TV rights.

As Yahoo Sports’ Doug McIntyre reported Thursday afternoon, there are still significant hurdles to clear. In fact, La Liga’s plan is unlikely to come to fruition anytime soon. It has already received opposition from the Spanish players’ association.

[McIntyre: La Liga games in the U.S.? Not so fast]

Plus, traditionalists would not be happy. Fans in Spain would bemoan the deterioration of their crown jewel. There are even significant questions pertaining to the scheme’s effect on La Liga’s competitive balance.

But soccer has been headed in this direction for some time. If La Liga can get games to the U.S., there’s no turning back.

Why La Liga wants to play games in the U.S.

The reasons behind the plan are commercial ones. Throughout the 21st century, European clubs and leagues have been racing to expand their reach and capture fans around the globe – particularly in Asia and North America. And La Liga is one of several heavyweights that has been losing that race to the English Premier League.

The Prem’s quality has not dwarfed La Liga’s. But its media rights deals have. So, therefore, have the revenue shares passed down to its clubs. That’s why a middling Premier League team can outspend a top-four contender in Spain. La Liga realized that to grow as a league, it had to grow its worldwide fan base. Fan interest can be monetized in countless ways.

La Liga’s revolutionary strategy to make up ground on England is to export its product. Along with Relevent, it will form La Liga North America, a joint organization tasked with growing the value of the league’s media rights and selling them. Historically, those two operations have been separate. La Liga realized they go hand-in-hand.

The venture, therefore, will be about more than just 90 minutes of soccer in an American stadium. It will be about outreach and exposure, fan access, and adjacent programming that will hype up the potential stateside matches as much as possible.

All of that is part of La Liga’s global mission. As Oscar Mayo, its international development director, said in a news release: “La Liga North America is a major milestone in our international expansion strategy.”

Why leagues have been hesitant to go globetrotting

But there are many reasons leagues have been hesitant. Most importantly, from a soccer perspective, it simply isn’t fair to one of the participants.

The Premier League recognized the potential value of playing regular season games abroad last decade. Its “39th game” concept proposed adding an extra round of matches to the season. But doing so would have unbalanced the schedule. The proposal was promptly shot down. Fans lashed out. Newspaper columnists crucified executives. Even prominent managers condemned the idea. Lord Triesman, then the chairman of the English Football Association (FA), identified rejected it.

“It produced massive backlash and opposition,” Malcolm Clarke, chairman of the Football Supporters Federation, told Yahoo Sports last year. “The whole of English football has been based on the simple principle that all the teams in all the leagues play each other twice.”

The same can be said for Spain. The raw results of those double-round-robins determine everything, from league titles to promotion and relegation.

La Liga’s proposal wouldn’t change that. It would, however, take a home game away from one of the clubs selected for the North American match. In a tight title race or relegation battle, that represents a not-insignificant disadvantage. So do the 10-plus hours of draining round-trip travel. That’s one reason players object to the scheme. (More on those objections later.)

Why NFL, NBA have been quicker to export games than European soccer leagues

European soccer executives have cited and will cite American sports leagues, such as the NFL and NBA, as precedent. The NBA has played 27 regular-season games overseas. The NFL has staged at least one in London every year since 2007.

[More: The NFL exports its product; why doesn’t European soccer reciprocate?]

But there’s a fundamental difference here: Unbalanced schedules are customary in the U.S. They’re also never the sole determinant of a league champion; and never could they send a team burdened by a harsh schedule tumbling down to a lower division.

European soccer leagues, on the other hand, don’t have playoffs. The “regular season” is the season. If Barcelona finishes one point ahead of Real Madrid – perhaps in part because a tough away trip to Villarreal instead turned into a quasi-home game in Miami – it doesn’t get the top seed in the playoffs; it wins the title.

At the other end of the table, imagine if Levante is fighting relegation, and rather than hosting Atletico Madrid in March, it has to play a crucial game thousands of miles away with very few of its own fans in attendance. That doesn’t seem right.

The history of European soccer’s foreign adventures

It’s also why European soccer’s foreign expeditions have, until now, remained “non-competitive” ones. In addition to preseason tours, top leagues have taken their super cups – the final preaseason match between the winners of last year’s league and domestic cup – abroad.

La Liga’s decision to play this year’s in Morocco was the subject of much controversy. But Italy and France have taken theirs to locales such as New York, Beijing and Doha. England, once the Community Shield‘s Wembley pact expires, could explore similar possibilities.

La Liga seems to be ahead of the curve. But it still has a long way to go before the stateside games come to fruition.

The obstacles standing in La Liga’s way

As Yahoo Sports’ Doug McIntyre explained:

The main hurdle La Liga and Relevent face is getting the required approval from various governing bodies at the international, regional, and national levels, starting with FIFA. As global soccer’s gatekeeper, FIFA would have to rubber-stamp any plan that would involve official matches in a country’s domestic competition to be played outside that country.

And even if FIFA did greenlight the plan, others could still stop it. CONCACAF, which oversees the sport in North and Central America and the Caribbean, has the jurisdiction to say no. CONCACAF has in the past balked at the idea of teams from the English Premier League and Mexico’s Liga MX playing meaningful games on U.S. soil.

 

In the event that La Liga’s plan cleared all of those obstacles, the United States Soccer Federation, which sanctions every soccer game played within the country’s borders, would have the final say. It’s hard to see La Liga convincing the USSF that staging such a match would be in the best interests of the sport in the country.

 

A single match played during Major League Soccer’s offseason would have little to no impact on the USA and Canada’s top league. But what if that number grew?  It’s safe to assume that MLS, whose commissioner Don Garber has bristled at European clubs’ barnstorming summer tours before, would not be in favor of it. (An MLS spokesman declined to comment.)

The other big problem here is convincing a club to give up a home game. This is a 15-year deal with, supposedly, one game per season abroad. There are 20 La Liga clubs – and more than 20 when you consider those relegated to and promoted from the second division over time. How can La Liga legitimately strip home games away from some and not from others?

Which La Liga teams will come to the U.S.? And where?

La Liga presumably knows that it can’t hold a Girona-Eibar game in Houston and expect it to sell out. I asked Relevent executive chairman Charlie Stillitano about the English equivalent of Girona-Eibar (West Brom-Bournemouth) for a feature on the subject last year. Would it work? His response was essentially: “I’m not sure. … We believe that we could make it work, but I don’t think it’s a slam dunk.”

The big names, therefore, would have to be involved, especially in the early years. And frankly, there might only be two clubs that qualify under the “big name” umbrella – Barca and Madrid. If any teams come to North America soon, it’s reasonable to expect Barcelona or Real to be one of them.

As for location, Miami – with a vibrant Spanish-speaking community, as the home of Relevent’s founder and owner, Stephen Ross, and as the host of last summer’s ICC Clasico – would be a heavy favorite for one of the first matches. Other major U.S. cities, such as New York (East Rutherford, N.J.) and Dallas (Arlington), would likely be involved. A west coast trip, however, would make for 24 hours of round-trip travel, which might not be feasible.

Spanish players’ association lashes out at La Liga

The strongest opposition yet has come from the AFE – the Asociación de Futbolistas Españoles, also known as the players’ association. It released a scathing statement in response to the news:

“As per usual, LaLiga has dispensed with the opinions of the players and has undertaken actions that only benefit them, regardless of the health or risks to the players, and even less the feelings of the following masses of the clubs who are being ‘forced’ to compete in North America once a season.

 

“Faced with such manifest arbitrariness, David Aganzo, president of the Spanish Footballers Association (AFE), has made his complaint public and points out that ‘footballers are not currency that can be used in business to only benefit third parties.'”

The FASFE – an association of Spanish soccer fans, partners and minority shareholders – also instantly opposed La Liga’s plan. There is plenty of excitement. But there is already plenty of resistance, and plenty of reasons La Liga’s plan could ultimately be nothing more than a promotional ploy.

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

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