“No es fútbol. Es LaLiga.”
With these words, Spain’s top domestic football league launched a new, free-to-air streaming, multi-sports service last week.
The channel will broadcast a broad range of live events ranging from sailing to swimming, from table tennis to taekwondo, from poker to fly-ski (whatever that is) and will run across a number of different digital platforms including iPhone and Android apps.
It serves the individual sports-federation rightsholders that struggle to get meaningful exposure or broadcast value for their content to hitch a ride on the reach of the granddaddy of Spanish sport.
And it seems clear that this audience-building exercise will act as a petri dish for LaLiga to gauge interest in a streaming sports service. Perhaps more importantly, LaLiga will be able to beta-test the viability of its digital and content infrastructure in case it switches one day to running a direct-to-consumer service for its own TV rights.
LaLiga’s president, Javier Tebas, has latterly persuaded the Big Two of Barcelona and Real Madrid to share more of their broadcast revenues with the rest of the league. But the pot is shrinking for TV rights altogether and the push for growth has taken LaLiga in an innovative new direction.
In the UK, it had previously partnered with the digital-only streaming service Eleven Sports, which belongs to the Leeds United owner, Andrea Radrizzani. Eleven began the 2018-19 season as its exclusive UK broadcast partner. But LaLiga’s attempt to get away from Sky Sports’ dominance of the UK sports-rights market faltered, and Eleven lost the exclusive rights in favour of a split deal with the satellite channel Premier Sports and the network channel ITV4.
Even so, the fact that LaLiga’s premium product couldn’t break new ground overseas has not stopped the combative Tebas perservering.
And as one former head of international rights for the Premier League commented: “With media-rights fees softening, all governing bodies will be looking at launching their own media platform.
“In many ways it makes sense also as a vehicle for reaching the next generation of potential fans, but marketing is going to be a big problem.”
For as long as third-party broadcasters, telecoms companies and digital-streaming services like Amazon are prepared to pay premiums to import the audiences the Premier League and LaLiga can rely on, it seems unlikely they’ll make the jump yet.
But with access to digital platforms almost at the point of ubiquity, proof-of-concept exercises like the one LaLiga is embarking on show there is a changing landscape for the media rights that have powered football’s growth worldwide.