MADRID: Spain's La Liga is hoping that their deal with ESPN finally puts them on the same footing in the United States as their English and German football counterparts.
ESPN will take over English- and Spanish-language rights to La Liga when next season begins in August as part of an eight-year agreement announced on Thursday. La Liga, which features Barcelona and Lionel Messi, has been televised by BeIN Sport since the 2012-13 season.
La Liga established a North American office in 2018 in a joint venture with Relevent Sports and has been trying to gain more of a foothold in America. But being on a network with a limited reach has been a hindrance.
“The US is the most important market for the league outside of Spain. It has been a priority for La Liga to get our product closer to our fans here," La Liga North America CEO Boris Gartner said. “It was clear to get to that next step we needed to find another partner. And honestly, when we started thinking about this, we always knew that we wanted to be in this project with ESPN.”
BeIN was in the first season of a four-year deal before La Liga bought back the final three seasons. ESPN executive vice president of programming Burke Magnus said he wasn't expecting rights to be available until he was approached by La Liga.
“It helps us both achieve our objectives,” he said. “For us, it's exclusive, comprehensive and long term.”
BeIN Sports has limited distribution in the US with fewer than 15 million subscribers, narrowing the visibility of Messi, Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid. ESPN announced on Thursday that there are 13.8 million subscribers to the ESPN+ streaming service, which just had its third anniversary.
ESPN+ has experienced steady growth through the acquisition of football rights, including Germany’s Bundesliga, England’s FA Cup, League Cup and second-tier League Championship, and Spain’s Copa del Rey.
ESPN+ will stream all 380 La Liga matches next season, and some will be televised on ESPN's networks. The twice-a-season El Clásicos between Barcelona and Real Madrid are the most-viewed domestic league games worldwide and are likely to be on ABC.
Gartner said the league would work with ESPN to find an optimal match time if El Clásico were to end up on broadcast television. For most if the year, Spain is six hours ahead of New York, meaning a 9 p.m. start in Spain would be 3 p.m. Eastern and noon Pacific.
“For us the passionate fans that go to a stadium every week in Spain are as important as those that wake up early in the morning in America to watch their team play. We want to make it as accessible to all of them as possible,” he said.
With two matches remaining this season, Atlético Madrid, which is seeking its first title since 2004, is two points ahead of Real Madrid.
Gartner said La Liga is still exploring the possibility of playing a regular-season match in the United States the next couple seasons. Barcelona and Real Madrid met in Miami in 2017 during the preseason International Champions Cup tournament.
Some LaLiga programming will start appearing on ESPN+ on Saturday. The deal runs through the 2028-29 season and also includes select second-division games as well as the promotion playoffs.
ESPN does have a previous history with La Liga. Some select matches aired on ESPN 2 as well as ESPN Deportes from 2009-12.
One aspect of La Liga that might not be making the move to ESPN is Ray Hudson. The BeIN Sport commentator, who is known for his liberal use of outlandish metaphors, has been a key part of the league's growing popularity.
La Liga's move also benefits soccer fans, who have many options for viewing their favorite league. Next season four networks will carry Europe's top five leagues and competitions.
NBC and Peacock have England's Premier League, the highest-rated domestic league on US television. NBC’s six-year contract expires after the 2021-22 season, and the rights are expected to come up for bid this summer.
CBS and Paramount+ started its rights to the Europe's Champions League and Europa leagues last year and takes over Italy’s Serie A from ESPN next season. BeIN will still air games from France's Ligue 1.
Fox has rights to the 2022 and 2026 FIFA World Cup and the 2023 Women’s World Cup. Fox and ESPN also share the rights to Major League Soccer with that contract set to expire after the 2022 season.