Soccer’s popularity in the United States is greater than ever.
Driven by a convergence of factors including but not limited to the popularity of domestic leagues like MLS, NWSL, and USL; more American stars playing for some of the biggest clubs domestically and abroad; a growing Spanish-speaking population; the sport’s appeal to younger, more diverse and digital savvy demographics; soccer documentaries and shows including Ted Lasso; and the increased access to the global game on TV, streaming platforms, and social media, the beautiful game is being appreciated and engaged with more than ever in the US where (American) football reigns supreme.
With club valuations and media rights deals increasing at an astronomical rate, it’s no surprise many foreign soccer leagues, clubs, and players want a piece of the US sports market.
That’s especially true for LaLiga, which secured a $1.4 billion media rights deal with ESPN to broadcast Spain’s premier domestic league in English and Spanish across the U.S. through the 2028-29 season.
“Growing in the US is of great priority to us,” Valencia CF head of international business Sandra Schroeder told Boardroom. “The US is one of the three markets which we have identified as what we call Tier 1 countries in our international strategy to focus our efforts on and achieve sustainable growth in number of fans, TV audience, members of our Socio’s VCF program, and sales of merchandise amongst others.
“To fulfill our goals for the 2022-23 season which we have set ourselves internally, we heavily rely on growing awareness and engagement in the US market.”
With a product on display more than 3,000 miles away, clubs like Valencia, Real Sociedad, Real Betis, Sevilla FC, and Celta Vigo are relying on social media and content to engage with US fans. Leveraging USMNT players like Yunus Musah (Valencia) and Luca de la Torre (Celta Vigo) as well as Mexican internationals Andres Guardado (Real Betis) and Jesus Corona (Sevilla) gives these clubs an instant connection to North American audiences.
“Valencia CF is a club with a widely known international trajectory that naturally connects with fans all over the world, but we have data that shows a growing interest with the North American public who have their eyes on Yunus Musah,” said Javier Latorre, Valencia CF media and communications director. “Behind the player there is a communication and content strategy that allows us to connect better and better with the North American target audience.”
While some clubs have an on-the-ground presence in the States, whether it’s via an office or youth academies and camps that further showcase their ethos and methodology, the struggle is remaining in the conversation and spotlight year-round rather than tied to a singular big moment like El Gran Derbi, the Seville Derby between Real Betis and Sevilla.
That’s where LaLiga North America helps out. A 50-50 joint venture between the league and Relevent Sports Group started in 2018, LaLiga North America serves as the exclusive representation of LaLiga in the US, Canada, Mexico, and Central America for all business and development activities.
Not only does the operation manage the TV/media rights and commercial agreements on behalf of the league, but supports its growth on the continent through content development (like the United States of LaLiga and Black Stars of LaLiga series or the new partnership with UFC), events and activations (like the LaLiga All-Star Gaming Challenge presented by Panini), marketing agreements, and youth academies and coaches.
“The US as a market has a lot of opportunity for a lot of clubs just based on population,” said Nicolás García Hemme, LaLiga North America vice president of strategy and business development. “Some clubs have already done a good job to have some presence here, but it’s in a specific vertical like youth academies. Now what we’re trying to do is to create cohesive storytelling that can resonate in the market.”
In conjunction with LaLiga North America’s content studio in Guadalajara, Mexico, many of these clubs are telling stories about their respective cities and regions, organization history, famous players, and anything else that makes them unique, not only in Spain but in global soccer.
The key, according to Hemme, is for clubs to understand what audience segment they’re targeting. For example, many first-generation Hispanics or Spanish speakers in the US are already familiar with LaLiga and these stories, but second- and third-generation Hispanics who are more “American” might not be, so leveraging music, fashion, sports betting, and gaming can help introduce them to the league’s players, clubs, culture, and traditions.
Because of that, LaLiga clubs, used to being the toast of the town in Spain and many other parts of the globe with soccer being the world’s most popular sport, are jostling for eyeballs in a crowded US sports market that’s dominated by the NFL and NBA and also includes MLB, NHL, UFC, and other European soccer leagues like the Premier League and Bundesliga.
“The Premier League is very strong globally, and of course, together with the Bundesliga, they are very important competitors,” said Real Sociedad Foundation project manager Iñigo Diaz de Cerio. “However, the population of the US is more than big enough to accommodate them and LaLiga. Despite that, Real Sociedad and the rest of LaLiga clubs need to be much more aggressive marketing-wise, and we simply cannot, and must not, waste any more time on this matter.”
Thankfully, there’s no better time for LaLiga clubs to be aggressive in their internationalization and marketing strategies, whether the priority is North America, Asia, Africa, or anywhere else on the planet as a result of LaLiga Impulso.
Announced in December 2021 after approval from 37 of the 42 teams comprising Spain’s top two divisions, LaLiga Impulso or “Boost LaLiga” is a deal with private equity fund CVC Capital Partners which gives CVC an 8.25% stake in LaLiga’s media rights for the next 50 years in exchange for $2.1 billion.
Clubs are allowed to spend up to 70% of funding from the investment on infrastructure like facilities, internationalization, and academies, 15% on servicing debt, and 15% on signing players.
“Impulso is a milestone and a game-changer that provides us with opportunities to accelerate all our current and future projects,” said Luis Arconada, head of media at Real Sociedad. “If we want to compete with the Premier League and Bundesliga among others, Impulso gives us the tools to do so.”
“I believe that LaLiga Impulso and the CVC deal helps us increasingly in completing our aforementioned goals,” Schroeder said. “Not just because we have been given some money that will have a significant impact on a lot of areas within the club but also with the money came a sort of checklist from LaLiga with tasks that we need to complete and how the money should be distributed.
“This checklist for us is a great compass on which tasks need to be done to build a — hopefully — successful, sustainable, and long-lasting international strategy.”
Patience and commitment are required, according to Hemme, as many of these clubs strive to step out of the shadows of LaLiga giants FC Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Atlético Madrid, who are perennial favorites and winners of premier European competitions including the UEFA Champions League; Real Madrid’s 14 Champions Leagues titles are double that of the competition’s next most successful club, AC Milan.
Despite playing the majority of their domestic and European matches on another continent, LaLiga clubs have made it a priority to come to the United States through summer tours and other activations.
Earlier this month, LaLiga announced the “LaLiga Summer Tour” which will make its first stop in the US and Mexico with the participation of four legendary LaLiga clubs. While matchups, cities, and dates are still to be announced, LaLiga expects the tour to continue to reinforce the narrative it’s been sharing about its clubs throughout the year, especially since 2018 when LaLiga North America started.
With the FIFA Women’s World Cup this summer in Australia/New Zealand and the 2024 Copa América and 2026 FIFA World Cup coming to North America, now is the ideal time for LaLiga to capitalize on soccer’s exponential growth.
“We now have the perfect opportunity to raise our awareness in the U.S. principally due to the fact that the next World Cup will be co-hosted by the US, Canada, and Mexico,” Diaz de Cerio said. “With this in mind, we are in no doubt that it will be very challenging since the NFL and NBA are established market leaders. Nevertheless, we consider that we are currently in a very favorable time with the huge increase of soccer fans in the U.S., and with the 2026 World Cup.”