Home >Lounge >Features >LaLiga’s plans for India domination

When Espanyol’s Chinese import Wu Lei scored a late equalizer against Barcelona in a Spanish LaLiga football match on 4 January, the event triggered a storm of reactions in his home country. Described as a “new chapter in history" by some in the Chinese media, it trended on the Twitter-like Weibo with one related hashtag generating 370 million views, according to an AFP report.

It was Wu Lei’s second goal for the club he had moved to a year ago, proving to many that he was a genuine football talent and not just a marketing gimmick, as some sporting cynics had thought. But more important, perhaps, than what he is doing for his team is what he is achieving for LaLiga.

About 40 million people in China reportedly tuned in to Lei’s first game against Villarreal last February, compared to an estimated television audience of 177,000 in Spain, with some websites already crediting the player with bolstering Espanyol’s overall valuation.

Wu Lei’s impact is just one example of the strides LaLiga has made in the Asian market in recent times, as it aims to compete strongly with the English Premier League (PL), which has had a first-mover advantage in Asia. India too has seen a series of initiatives since LaLiga opened an office here in September 2016. In fact, LaLiga now believes it can be among the top two football leagues in the country in popularity—behind the Indian Super League (ISL) and ahead of the PL.

Rohit Sharma, the LaLiga ambassador in India.
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Rohit Sharma, the LaLiga ambassador in India. (Photo: LaLiga)

In December, LaLiga announced cricketer Rohit Sharma as its brand ambassador here—the league’s first non-football playing ambassador globally. A few days later, Dream11 became its official fantasy game partner for five seasons, till 2023-24. Additionally, in October, Balkrishna Industries Ltd (BKT), a manufacturer of off-highway tyres, became an unlikely official global partner.

In 2018, LaLiga launched a grass-roots programme called LaLiga Football Schools, with local partner India On Track. Although the programme reaches about 10,000 children across 14 cities, its aim is to spread brand awareness rather than produce a player who could play in the LaLiga. In July 2018, Girona FC played ISL team Kerala Blasters and Australian club Melbourne City in Kochi in a pre-season set of friendly matches.

LaLiga India MD Jose Antonio Cachaza.
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LaLiga India MD Jose Antonio Cachaza.

“LaLiga decided to bet on the Indian market three years ago, when I came to open the office," says its Delhi-based managing director, Jose Antonio Cachaza, after the announcement of the brand ambassador in Mumbai. “We are collecting the results of three years of work. What we are doing cannot be expressed in numbers but we are convinced India is a future market more than a present-day market."

Till recently, LaLiga had the two best players in the world in Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. In Asia, where fans form loyalties more easily to individuals than teams, having football’s leading players helped, says Cachaza. For example, PL’s popularity—and, in turn, Manchester United’s—in the continent owes a lot to the phenomenon of David Beckham in the 1990s.

While Ronaldo moved on from Spain to Juventus in the Italian Serie A in 2018, Messi’s presence, along with two of the best clubs in the world, Real Madrid and Barcelona, gives the league an advantage in attracting audiences.

Last year, LaLiga was in talks to hold a Girona-Barcelona league game in Miami, US, in a bid to grow the sport in a country with a large—and growing—Hispanic population. Something similar in India is still distant.

“You are talking big business," adds Cachaza. “Is that a possibility? Yes. But we are not (even) close. We (LaLiga) initially have to play some matches abroad and the first would be in the US."

LaLiga also bucked the trend this season by going completely digital in its free telecast in the subcontinent, aiming at a young generation more comfortable using a cellphone than sitting in front of the television with family adults.

Facebook, which won the telecast rights for three years starting 2018-19, is broadcasting all 380 matches of the 2019-20 season, giving LaLiga a digital-only flavour in India. Last season, Facebook had shared some matches with Sony Pictures Networks, which had held the previous broadcast rights worth a reported $32 million (around 226 crore now) from 2014-18. The league’s digital fan base has grown from about 300,000 in 2016 to nearly four million currently, with live numbers reaching up to a concurrent 150,000. India already has the highest number of Facebook users in the world, having crossed the 240-million mark two years ago.

When you take bold approaches," Cachaza adds, “you always have mixed reviews. Fans don’t realize the reason or results until later. Professional sport management is a game of balances—how do you increase revenue without alienating fans."

Changing platforms and getting viewers to migrate to the new one are the two biggest and positive changes in LaLiga in recent times, says Joe Morrison, a commentator on the FB live broadcast. “Our USP is the interaction. I have done TV for many years. They have tried to include social media but on TV, social media comments are delayed. Our turnaround time is now in seconds. To be able to involve audience as an extra pundit (the studio usually has one or two experts besides Morrison) has given the show so much energy—literally as the fourth person on the panel."

If Sharma’s appointment signals LaLiga is succumbing to the tried and tested Indian formula of associating with cricketers and film stars for promotions, it also shows the league’s intent to spread its net wide. LaLiga hopes that the cricketer’s over 10 million social media followers will be influenced enough to watch Spanish club football.

“The biggest thing that I have seen this season is a huge jump in comments," adds Morrison about the live stream that allows viewers to comment—these are used by the commentators for analysis or sometimes just for a laugh. “Those are fans who have taken the effort to be involved. They are not using a second screen—they are listening to our conversation. Comments are the true measure of how successful a show is," he adds.

There are, however, other challenges for LaLiga, the primary one being timing. With many matches scheduled post midnight in India on weekends, live viewership suffers in comparison to the PL, which has matches earlier in the evening. Though LaLiga has changed its match timings on occasion to cater to its Asian market, those have been few and far between.

The other disadvantage is that while the PL has five, maybe six, big teams that are usually in title contention, LaLiga is a two-three team affair, with Atlético Madrid as the third contender to Real and Barcelona. With 32-year-old Messi battling injuries and the inevitable passage of time, the window to maximize his draw for Indian audiences may be running out. Unless, of course, LaLiga is able to find the Indian version of Wu Lei before the PL does.

Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers sports and lifestyle.

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