Earlier today, Boris Gartner, CEO, LaLiga North America, Burke Magnus, ESPN executive vice president of programming and original content, and Russell Wolff, Executive Vice President and GM, ESPN+, discussed ESPN and LaLiga’s expansive, long-term agreement on a conference call. The transcript follows:
BORIS GARTNER: We couldn’t be more excited about bringing LaLiga home to ESPN in the U.S. This partnership and the expansive rights agreement are just a major achievement for LaLiga and ESPN, but honestly for the growth of soccer’s popularity and culture in the U.S. The United States market is one of the most competitive markets in the world. Through the backing, support and research of ESPN behind LaLiga sports to grow in the U.S., is the most important tool that we have in our arsenal.
LaLiga has a very passionate and engaged audience around the world. And the U.S. is no different. Our fans here span all demographics but we have a special strong following with the young, multicultural demo. This is of course true for the 60 million Hispanics in the U.S. But increasingly for fans in the 18 to 34 demo.
For us passionate fans of LaLiga who go every week to the stadium in Spain are as important as those who wake up early in the morning in America to watch their team play. We want to make LaLiga as accessible to all of them as possible.
BURKE MAGNUS: First of all, what I’d like to do is to thank Javier Tebas, the president of LaLiga, and Boris for his involvement and hard work in getting us to this day. I’d like to thank Steve Ross and the team at Relevent (Sports) for their assistance as well. We could not be more excited about this acquisition. LaLiga is unquestionably among a very small set of the top leagues in the world with global iconic club brands, with global iconic players on those clubs. And it fits perfectly with the strategy that we are trying to employ at the Walt Disney Company, ESPN and ESPN+ on our pursuit of exclusive and comprehensive content to help fuel our businesses.
We weren’t expecting LaLiga necessarily to be available when the conversations began. But pretty quickly, I believe, through a really cordial and friendly and optimistic process of getting to know the key players here at the league, we all saw the possibilities here that the combination of Disney and ESPN and ESPN+ and LaLiga could have for fútbol fans in the United States and help us both achieve our objectives through the unparalleled reach of the Disney platform.
So we’re really excited about it. It’s exclusive. It’s comprehensive. It’s long term. It’s English and Spanish. It fits perfectly into our strategy. And we can’t wait to get to work to help build the LaLiga brand, the club brands and the player brands in the United States, which we know is a key priority for the league.
RUSSELL WOLFF: We have already established ESPN as the comprehensive home for soccer in the U.S. This deal takes it to a new level. ESPN+ has more than 2900 matches per year. And streaming is a major priority for Disney. And ESPN+ is our direct-to-consumer focus. Our teams are hard at work building the ESPN+ platform and product to deliver sports fans amazing value. And at the end of the second quarter we announced today that we’ve grown to 13.8 million subscribers.
As Burke said, this deal reflects priorities that ESPN has across platforms and our efforts to grow ESPN+ bringing enormous value to U.S. soccer fans. We continue to focus on growing our multicultural fan base. And know that, as Boris said, the Spanish language fans in the U.S. over-index in their affinity for fútbol in general, but especially for LaLiga.
This deal fits well with our growing efforts to grow the line of sports in Spanish in ESPN+ and the number of Spanish-speaking fans who subscribe to ESPN+. With this deal, we’ll offer over 1000 fútbol matches in Spanish each year. And those Spanish-language matches are complemented by other Spanish-language content in UFC, boxing and other sports, plus popular shows like Jorge Ramos y Su Banda and Fuera de Juego.
So, thank you to you, Boris, and your colleagues at LaLiga. We couldn’t be more excited to get this started.
Boris, two questions for everyone. What was the decision and timeline of discussing buying back your rights and kind of finally getting more of a foothold in the U.S. with an ESPN deal? And just maybe for Burke and Russell, too, just what the popularity of streaming services the past couple of years, how much has that popularity really helped in terms of European fútbol with the rights movements and strengthening the foothold on streaming services for everyone?
BORIS GARTNER: First, it’s worth getting a little context, the U.S. is the most important market for LaLiga outside of Spain. It’s been a priority for LaLiga since a few years back. We actually established a joint-venture relationship in 2018 between LaLiga and Relevent Sports specifically focused to grow the direction the league has in the U.S. and to get our product closer to fans here.
Since that moment when we started laying out the strategy, putting the team together and going to work, we knew that the broadcasting piece of it was going to be a key aspect of that. And based on that strategy that we laid out and the relationship that we had, we’ve been having conversations with a lot of people throughout the years. And, again, understanding that we’ve always needed to have a little bit of a better understanding of what we could do with the league in the market.
beIN (Sports) is an incredibly important partner of LaLiga globally — they have rights in over 70 territories — but in the U.S. it was clear that we wanted to kind of give that next step. We needed to find another partner.
When we started thinking about this and discussing it internally, we always knew that we wanted to be in this partnership with ESPN. In our minds, there’s no better partner in the territory. Just from the extensive coverage that they do for soccer in general and sports, but it was really for us the only potential partner that could help us grow the league and the fans here in the U.S. So, long conversations, taking a lot of time. But we’re happy that we’re here today and excited about the next eight years.
RUSSELL WOLFF: I would say that our position in fútbol prior to this is quite strong, with Copa del Rey, Bundesliga, MLS, the FA Cup, Carabao Cup, Dutch, Scottish, UEFA National and USL, MLS. We were looking to continue to build our position in fútbol on the ESPN+ platform. This was the perfect opportunity to do that with LaLiga, given their enormous position.
Burke, I saw in the release you said selected matches will be on ESPN. And I wonder how far along you guys are? Because I think forgetting about the die-hard LaLiga fan, I think the general soccer fan would be interested if one of the Barcelona-Real Madrid matches were on ESPN as opposed to ESPN+?
BURKE MAGNUS: I think we’re going to employ the same or similar strategy as we have for UFC, for example, where part of the attraction and part of the flexibility — from a rightsholder perspective — and part of the flexibility that we seek in agreements we’ve been doing recently is the ability to utilize all of our platforms to integrate content and expose our content across, not just the ESPN networks and the cable side, but even ABC, I would say, is in play here to help broaden the audience for LaLiga.
You’ve seen us do it to this point quite effectively with UFC. We’ve done it with some of the other soccer properties that we have. We now have what we think is the ultimate mousetrap, if you will, for reaching fans, which is ABC on the broadcast network side over the air, the fully distributed ESPN networks, our digital and social vehicles, which are industry leading and far beyond our competition.
And then every single game, even the games that we would do on cable or over the air would also live on ESPN+. So ESPN+ will be the comprehensive place to see every game, but we’re absolutely going to take games to the broader-reach platforms as a strategy. No details to this point, but I think it’s in everybody’s best interests to try and cast that net as wide as possible.
Do you have any time line regarding the hiring of on-air talent?
BURKE MAGNUS: No. No, we don’t. Most of the games come to us produced by LaLiga. And we’re going to supplement at some level with talent both game talent, and also Russell mentioned some of the surround programming we’re going to have both that comes from the league and also what we’ll do of our own devices. And I’m sure that will necessitate some unique talent for us. But we don’t have any details quite yet.
Russell and Burke, you’ve both been at ESPN for a long time. And you know that ESPN has had a relationship with LaLiga for a long time — and with ESPN International, more recently. Go back to the late 2000s and before, there we LaLiga games on ESPN2 and ESPN Deportes and so on. The folks in Bristol have been around for a while; how nice is it to have it back?
BURKE MAGNUS: Well, you’re right. Number one, we have been around a long time, both of us. And Russell having run our international business for many, many years is ultimately — is intimately familiar with everything we’ve done outside the U.S. and yes we’ve had LaLiga content through an ESPN Deportes relationship, but also sort of some games sampled on ESPN2.
This is like a completely new day. That’s really exciting to us. I’ve said it before in other context with other deals we’ve done that just the simple existence of ESPN+ has put us in the conversation with certain rights and certain properties globally that if it was a purely linear world we just wouldn’t be able to do anything close to what we’re doing here. And that is really exciting. It’s exciting for those of us who get to work on it. But it’s exciting for the mission of serving fans.
There’s not a soccer fan in the U.S. who won’t be aware of the fact that we have every LaLiga game on our platform. And from where I sit — in the current day, in the current iteration of fan expectations — they’re not just expecting one game here, one game there. They’re expecting all the games, easily accessible. And delivering on the expectations of that has been truly the fun part of a world where ESPN+ exists, and our efforts in direct-to-consumer have made that a possibility.
We sort of feel like three years in — we just celebrated the third anniversary of ESPN+ not that long ago — we feel like we’ve been at this longer than anybody and it’s only three years. So we’re like the experienced player in sports direct-to-consumer and the other guys are just catching on to this.
So we’re really excited that we can do things in categories like European soccer and global soccer and with properties like LaLiga that just haven’t ever been possible before for us.
RUSSELL WOLFF: Only thing I would add to that is from a news-information perspective and from a SportsCenter perspective and an ESPN FC perspective, both the show and digital environment of ESPNFC, we’ve had people working on LaLiga nonstop since LaLiga departed our linear television networks years ago. They’ve been working tirelessly to tell the stories of the amazing teams and rivalries and players in LaLiga. And that will only ramp up with enhanced highlight rights and other rights that come as part of this deal. We’re quite excited about it.
Boris, when the European fútbol leagues consider kickoff time, sometimes they take into account the Asian audience. Sometimes they take into account the audience in the Americas where there’s a big difference between 7.00 a.m. Eastern time and 3:00 p.m. Eastern time and so on and so forth. But how tempted is anybody at LaLiga to say if we can get a classic one on ABC let’s see if we don’t put it at 7:00 in the morning Eastern time; let’s put it at an hour when the U.S. audience, which you said is so important to LaLiga, when they’ll really be lined up for it?
BORIS GARTNER: Yes, not just open, but it’s part of the ongoing conversation. We know that we’ve been one of the first European leagues that has actually slotted the thing, different matches that we have every week and on different time slots, especially to facilitate the distribution, the partnership with the broadcasters.
And it’s not just only about El Clásico. Of course, that’s our Super Bowl and it happens twice a year. And hopefully we get it on ABC and whatever the ESPN team considers the right strategy. And of course we’ll facilitate not only on the time of the matches but any special access, special programming, anything that we can do, this is a partnership.
We’re not just handing over a feed and telling Burke that we’ll see each other in eight years, this is really you cannot imagine the amount of people that we have on our side that are dedicated to the relationship with ESPN and making it the best possible product that they’ll have on air just to make sure that we’re expanding the fan base and hopefully getting LaLiga not just to the core fans that have followed it wherever it has gone over the past few years but that actually we’re reaching a new audience. So, anything we can do to market and promote that, we’re going to be for sure doing it.
RUSSELL WOLFF: That even starts — it’s exciting, it even starts this weekend with content coming to ESPN+ this weekend in terms of curated collections of LaLiga programming and documentaries and best moments of LaLiga. And so we’re starting that more than just games and matches as quickly as May 15th.
Burke and Russell, has your Bundesliga coverage acted as a template for what you could potentially do for LaLiga in terms of having stuff in ESPN+, and then you put El Clásico on ABC — maybe you can put El Clásico on ABC — and also does this deal somewhat soften the blow for having lost Serie A recently?
BURKE MAGNUS: Sure, I’ll start. And as usual my tag team partner will fill in anything that I forget.
But, well, I think Serie A was the original model here for us. It was the first comprehensive European league deal that we did. We enjoyed having the rights. Certainly we would have liked to have continued but they had their business reasons for going in a different direction.
Bundesliga, I think we innovated the relationship to get to a point with Bundesliga where it was more comprehensive and longer term, and thus we were able to really sort of invest more time and effort in them which will also, by the way, continue. There’s a lot of American players in Bundesliga that make it pretty attractive for the U.S. audience.
And now this is the, even the next generation. We’ll never be accused of being complacent at ESPN. We continue to try and innovate and improve. And this is, the deal with LaLiga is the latest iteration of that.
So certainly losing Serie A is something we would have wanted to continue. But we’re really happy with the LaLiga deal. And we’re happy that we had eight years now to really deliver on our promise to the league to help grow the property in the U.S.
Boris, in some ways, in terms of expanding the audience, did the league miss the boat by missing Messi and Ronaldo’s best years for the U.S. audience? And for Russell or Burke, it’s not to everyone’s taste but certainly beIN’s announcers with Ray Hudson and the metaphors has a niche audience in the U.S. Any thought of adding them to the commentary team?
BORIS GARTNER: Listen, I don’t think we’ve missed the boat. I actually think that if you look at the trajectory of the league and where it comes from, both from a competition and a distribution perspective, it’s actually, it happened at the right time. And for us the deal that we had prior makes sense at that point for many reasons.
And we were just, I think, flexible enough to understand when was the moment where it didn’t make sense anymore and where we needed to find a new home. Specifically as it relates to players affecting the viewership and the following of LaLiga in this case, your point with Ronaldo, for example, we saw zero impact when Ronaldo left for Serie A, in terms of following audience and just general interest in the league.
We have Messi, the best player in the world, but we have also had other players that have been recognized winning the Ballon d’Or for the past 10 years all from LaLiga. So I don’t think a league is defined by a player. Of course, we want to have them all if we can. But we have a pretty solid bench, to put it in a way, and we’re going to keep on making sure that we can highlight the best teams and the best players within the league.
The question about the announcing team. The league is known for Ray Hudson and the outlandish metaphors, having a niche audience. Any thought of including that or would you just rather go in your own direction?
RUSSELL WOLFF: I think we’re outstanding in creating our own position in whatever sport we do. Certainly while notice has been made, we have a great rosters of talented folks on the fútbol side of things. The team will be deciding what to do next. There’s no decisions yet.
Burke and Russell, how much of a play is this for LaLiga, just as much for ESPN Deportes as it is for ESPN+? And Boris, how does this announcement today, does it accelerate or increase the opportunity for LaLiga games to be played in the United States?
BURKE MAGNUS: I think we’re pretty clear that ESPN+ is driving this agreement. Our emphasis will really be put there as Russell indicated earlier, we’re going to fit this into a developing Spanish-language content strategy for ESPN+. Obviously, ESPN Deportes is still a viable home for the Hispanic sports fan in the U.S. and will continue to be populated with a host of great content. But it has the same sort of linear limitations, I guess I’d say, as any other network would have.
So there’s oftentimes where we actually have too many things happening simultaneously for a single linear Spanish language network feed. And so it’s our design with LaLiga in many ways at the heart of it to continue to build our Spanish language content offering on ESPN+. And I think you’ll see that bloom in a much more significant fashion with the addition of LaLiga. That’s the strategy there.
BORIS GARTNER: Regarding the U.S. match, known as the Miami match, we set up our strategy. Again three years ago it was very clear, it was not coincidence or anything, that we wanted to announce, that we wanted to do a game in the U.S. The interesting part of that it was not the only part of the strategy. We knew that we had to stand up a dedicated team that was creating content specifically for the U.S. audience across all of our digital platforms; that we had a commercial team that was looking out for a partnership that would help grow our brand; that we had grassroots projects that would help raise awareness of the brand.
As part of that, of course we wanted and we want still to host a game in the U.S., for many reasons. But the main one — it’s as simple as we want to get our product as close to our fans. And our fans, again as I was saying at the beginning, the ones that go every week to the stadium to follow a team are as important as the ones that wake up here at 4.00 a.m. in LA time when you have those early games, or 7.00 a.m. in the East Coast, and getting an official LaLiga match here in the U.S. to allow those fans to actually live the passion and drama of a game that’s counting for three points, and that it’s going to be fine who gets promoted, relegated, et cetera. We still feel I think it’s the best marketing standard we can do to continue to grow not just LaLiga here in the U.S., but soccer in general.
So we keep on pushing for it. But again as I was saying, it’s not the only thing that we’re trying to do. And again this partnership with ESPN will allow us to get that product closer to the fans every week.
Burke, can you kind of give us more information in regards to what the breakdown is in terms of TV, streaming in the app so Canadians can watch the games up here?
BURKE MAGNUS: No problem. We’ll have to follow up with you with specific detail. We did acquire the rights in Canada, as the release indicated. But I don’t want to misspeak. And I’m not intimately familiar with how it’s going to be distributed in that territory as of yet. I think if we could follow up with you separately. We’ll do that.
FastScripts Transcript by ASAP Sports