Equal Time: Why La Liga are smart to stage matches in US
The universe is expanding but the world’s shrinking. I’m not quite sure how that works. I do know the latter part upsets many football fans. Supporters at big clubs tend to think size matters. They revel in their team’s global reach. Until it means having to share their club with the wider world, however. The latest example is La Liga’s announcement it intends to stage league matches in the United States and Canada.
Fans who attend matches aren’t thrilled. It deprives them a Saturday or Sunday at the ground cheering on their side. They’re going to miss one match from 19, not counting cup ties and European nights so fans not as fortunate to be born within commuting distance of La Mestalla or the Wanda Metropolitano can see their side play a meaningful match in person. Those who’ve carried on a long-distance love affair can at last watch Diego Costa and Antoine Griezmann work their magic for 90 minutes, rather than [maybe] making token appearances while Diego Simeone gives his youth and fringe players a pre-season run-out. Or maybe Lionel Messi and Philippe Coutinho or Gareth Bale and Isco.
NFL fans sacrifice games in similar fashion, losing one home game from eight, with no cup ties or any guarantee of playoff games. Professional and college gridiron teams play regular-season games in London. Different teams make the trip to Wembley each year, meaning fans [except those in Jacksonville] only lose a game every few years. Oh, the injustice.
The new White Hart Lane features a removable pitch that allows a potential London NFL franchise to share the ground with Spurs without tearing up the pitch but La Liga fans needn’t worry about an American or Canadian side entering their division. Matters won’t go that far and their clubs will benefit from the venture.
La Liga trails the NFL and, more importantly, the Premier League in its marketing reach. It thrives in Spanish-speaking countries but struggles elsewhere. The Premier League’s global influence is such that 11 of 20 teams in 2016/17 would have registered a profit had all their home games been staged behind closed doors. Match attendance has an increasingly small effect on the bottom line
Fans who read that may react like doting parents who can’t come to grips with the fact their children can manage without them, with panic and a loss of purpose. What do you do when you’re no longer needed? Relax; it isn’t so bad. Squads rely on fans to make their presence known, especially in tough matches. You serve a purpose, but your team’s grown to the point they must go out in the world to thrive. Like it or not, you must share.
Take comfort in the fact those North American supporters pay ridiculous ticket prices, far more than what you believe is exorbitant now. The recent El Clasico friendly in Miami cost a minimum $200, with many upper bowl seats priced at more than $500. The best seats set eager fans back more than $1,000. That’s a minimum £157 or €175 for a friendly. League matches will command even steeper prices.
In this scheme, clubs profit from more than large gate receipts. Merchandise sales increase, too. That revenue can help La Liga compete in the transfer market with the Premier League’s financial muscle. Entering the US and Canadian markets is a necessity for the Primera Division’s competitive wellbeing.
At the same time, Spanish clubs will ensure such junkets don’t create a competitive imbalance. NFL clubs travel to London in mid-season. They play every seven days, though, and are used to travelling several time zones for away games. The NHL, which sometimes schedules games on back-to-back nights, handles their regular season international matches differently. They stage them to begin the season.
Given La Liga’s partner in this promotion is the same company that stages the International Champions Cup friendlies in pre-season, any La Liga games promise to follow hockey’s example. They’ll take place in mid-August. Doing so removes congested fixture lists from the equation. North American games won’t interfere with the Copa del Rey, Champions or Europa Leagues. Teams won’t be jet-lagged before a crucial match in March or April. This also suits the promoters, who won’t be competing with the NFL from September through January, or the NBA and NHL playoffs in spring.
Nor will El Clasico or any other big rivalry be the match played overseas. Expect La Liga to take a page from the NFL in this regard, scheduling less appealing matchups such as Real Madrid v Eibar, Barcelona v Girona, or Atletico v Celta Vigo. Local derbies remain local. El Clasico continues to be the sole property of the Camp Nou and Santiago Bernabeu.
That said, fans who live close and attend their club’s home games must get over their sense of propriety. Clubs stopped belonging solely to locals when they began welcoming foreign players, coaches and investment. Did you think it’d be a one-way street forever?
It’s time to realise you’re not better than other supporters because you pay for tickets and went to games with your father and grandfather. You were just lucky to be born in the right place to enjoy your club live. Now it’s time to give the rest of us whose money supports the club a rare but fair opportunity to do the same.