The leaders of LaLiga, ESPN, Relevent Sports and global soccer legend Gerard Piqué, discussed ESPN and LaLiga’s expansive, long-term agreement during a conference call this morning. The transcript:
THE MODERATOR (ESPN’s Fernando Palomo): Welcome to ESPN’s headquarters. I’m Fernando Palomo. I’m joined by a stellar panel that will candidly talk to you about the deal that brings LaLiga back to ESPN and to the millions of fútbol fans across the country exclusively on ESPN, ESPN Deportes, ABC and ESPN+ in both Spanish and English.
Javier Tebas, President, LaLiga
Jimmy Pitaro, Chairman, ESPN and Sports Content
Burke Magnus, Executive Vice President, Programming and Original Content, ESPN
Stephen Ross, Chairman and Owner, Relevent Sports Group
Danny Sillman, CEO, Relevent Sports Group.
I’ll begin with opening remarks. I’ll start by saying Jimmy Pitaro, congratulations on the deal. What are you most excited about with this new relationship with LaLiga? Welcome.
JAMES PITARO: Good morning, Fernando. Let me start by saying that I, too, am incredibly excited about this new agreement. LaLiga is one of the best and most popular sports leagues in the world with a number of the top clubs and some of the best players. We are excited to now be the exclusive U.S. home of all 380 LaLiga Santander matches per season as well as LaLiga Smartbank matches. That is across both linear and digital platforms in both English and Spanish.
We’ve been very focused on growing our Spanish language content offerings and that is on ESPN+. LaLiga will play a big part in that going forward. Our direct-to-consumer business, led by ESPN+, is a company priority. LaLiga content will help fuel that platform.
Quite simply, this content will further solidify ESPN+ as a must have for soccer fans. LaLiga will now be a part of a lineup that already includes more than 2900 soccer matches per season from around the globe.
In addition to those matches, we will have a full suite of LaLiga surround programming – again in English and Spanish. That will include magazine shows, weekly and season previews and reviews, highlight specials, and much more. Again, the incredible content will be featured across all platforms including our linear networks as well.
You will also see us really getting behind LaLiga on the digital side and on the social side of our business where we continue to show tremendous growth. We know soccer content attracts young, diverse and tech-savvy fans, and we’re thrilled to be able to serve them across these various platforms.
In terms of our overall reach and for some context here, ESPN Digital has been the number one U.S. sports property for 37 consecutive months. The ESPN app continues to maintain its leadership position as the number one U.S. mobile sports app. ESPN Social continues to be the number one sports media publisher for engagement – that’s across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. ESPN on TikTok just eclipsed 1 billion likes.
We know soccer is growing in popularity in the U.S., and we at ESPN are now excited to increase the exposure of Spanish fútbol and be a part of its growth. At ESPN+ we’ve seen growing engagement with our soccer content over the last two years. And we’re excited to make more progress in this space with LaLiga.
We can’t wait for the LaLiga season to start. However, we’re also very excited to get going with a curated collection of LaLiga programming on ESPN+ that will help introduce new fans to LaLiga stars, teams, rivalries and traditions.
We’ll launch all of this content this Saturday, May 15th, on ESPN+. We’ll continue to grow the offerings here to help raise interest as we build towards the season start in August.
Finally, I do want to express my sincere gratitude to Javier Tebas, Stephen Ross and their respective teams. We’re excited to begin the new relationship and partnership with LaLiga.
THE MODERATOR: I can relate to the comment that you mentioned before that LaLiga attracts young fans. Being part of that group, I can say that LaLiga really attracts attention every weekend.
Now, we jump over to Spain. We fly over, virtually, to meet Javier Tebas.
It is a pleasure to say hello. This is going to — this is going to mean great progress in the U.S. How did all this start and how did the deal start?
JAVIER TEBAS: I would say it’s a long and complex process. LaLiga, for four years approximately, or we decided four years ago that we would change our strategy regarding the U.S., which first is an ideal place. We’ve got a lot of followers. But we’ve got potential for further growth.
So, four years ago we looked at the possibility of an association with Stephen Ross, with Relevent, with Danny to see how we could grow in the U.S. The first thing we did was joint venture with them in the U.S. But within that deal we thought that we would have to look at ways of increasing our exposure and also what I’ve been saying is that I like to be everywhere with the best and the level of true excellence.
That’s what we want in the U.S. We want to be with the best. ESPN and Disney are the best. So, we started to work with them and we had a year of negotiations and conversations to close the deal and we’ve done it. I think that this is what we wanted strategically.
We wanted to be excellent. We wanted to be with the best and we wanted to be with the most passionate people. We have passion for soccer and for Spanish soccer and for our teams.
I think that this association, this partnership as Jimmy said before, is going to help us grow; and that strategy of ESPN is — on the Spanish speaking or for the Spanish speaking audiences will help us grow too. It is eight years and maybe — only I think it will be more. We want to continue to make this Spanish soccer grow. ESPN and Disney and the U.S. and make it grow.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you. Now, we are really excited about this. Enough said. I told you initially we’re extremely excited.
Eighty-nine days away from that opening weekend of LaLiga’s next season, which will be the first of this deal and the first of many years to come for LaLiga on ESPN.
Now, let’s fly over to Relevent’s headquarters in New York. Mr. Stephen Ross and Mr. Danny Sillman, welcome and thank you for joining us.
You guys have been involved in the development of the game in the U.S. for many years. Where do you see the future of this sport in the U.S.? How do you think this partnership will help fútbol — f-ú-t-b-o-l — grow in the U.S.?
STEPHEN ROSS: As you said, we’ve been involved, about the last 10 years, in bringing international soccer to the United States and playing around the whole country and seeing the popularity of the sport grow. We’ve had crowds as many as a 110,000 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and I think we’ve sold out about every stadium we’ve played with these great international teams.
What we’ve learned, probably the two most popular teams is Real Madrid and Barcelona. Working and understanding the markets we see the enthusiasm that’s really been generated and we’re really proud to be able to work with these two great brands bring them together and really create and show America how great European and especially LaLiga soccer is.
Danny, who is the CEO of the company, has played a major role in developing those markets.
DANIEL SILLMAN: Thank you. I think for us the opportunity for the future is really finding great partners both in LaLiga that are willing to be innovative and creative in how they approach entering international markets, both with bringing events but also telling stories of players, great players like Gerard Piqué, and of the clubs all the way from Real, Barca and Atlético to Villarreal and Malaga and some of the other clubs that aren’t always as talked about as the others.
Obviously, we’re greatly thankful to Jimmy Burke and the team at ESPN for the distribution that they’re going to bring the league in many new and innovative ways, not just with linear programming, with their family of companies at Disney but also with ESPN+, and that continues to grow.
I think that being able to deliver the product into the hands of people over the top on their phones anywhere is a big, big win for LaLiga and a big win for soccer generally. We are excited we’re going to keep growing and we’re excited what the World Cup will do in terms of igniting this market. We’re thankful to Javier Tebas and the team at LaLiga and to Jimmy at the team at ESPN.
THE MODERATOR: We have a special guest here this morning. Welcome, the minister of defense at FC Barcelona, Gerard Piqué.
GERARD PIQUÉ: Hi, everyone. We’re doing good. We could be doing better after the draw on Tuesday. Now LaLiga is difficult for us. It’s very difficult to win it this year. But I’m very happy and very excited, as you said, that LaLiga has arrived to this partnership with ESPN. We want to be with the best. ESPN is the best.
I’m sure that our fans, and counting not just LaLiga fans but fútbol fans will be more than happy to show games, to watch our games on ESPN in America. All the times we’ve had to travel there to play some games, as Steve was saying and Daniel, we had a great experience in different cities. I hope we can go there and play in the future. We know we have a lot of fans in America and at the end of the day we play for them.
THE MODERATOR: Talking about the fans, now that LaLiga will be much closer to the fans in the United States, what would you like to say to the millions of fans of FC Barcelona and LaLiga?
GERARD PIQUÉ: At the end of the day we’re here to make them enjoy about this beautiful sport. And I think that every year the level of LaLiga is increasing in terms of the quality of the games, the quality of the players. There are different clubs that are growing so much in the last few years — to put an example, Levante, which is a club which a few years ago they were in lower divisions. We went to play against them on Tuesday, and we didn’t win because they have a strong team and maybe they are not as popular as the other clubs, like ours or Real Madrid or Atletico Madrid, but they’re doing things very well.
I think it’s an opportunity to know much more about a lot of clubs that are doing, a lot of things in the right way and to meet a lot of new players that are coming through and that they have a great level.
THE MODERATOR: You just mentioned the level of the competition. It’s raised to a level we haven’t seen in decades. How close are we to repeating the adrenaline and passion that has been through this season as far as competitiveness goes in the coming years? How close are we seeing a close title fight repeat itself year in and year out?
GERARD PIQUÉ: I hope it’s not as tight as this year and we can win it in the future. But it’s true that this year between Atlético Madrid, Real Madrid and us we had a great fight until the end. Let’s see who wins at the end of competition.
But there are other clubs that, as I said, they’re doing great things. Just to put an example of Sevilla, it’s a club that’s fighting until the last day also to try to win it. It’s very difficult for them because they are a little bit far. But they played very good fútbol and they are there because they deserve it. So, I think that every year there are more clubs fighting to be in the positions in the top and it’s very difficult. Every year, it’s more difficult to win this competition.
THE MODERATOR: When you came back home with the news that LaLiga had signed a new deal with Disney, what did your kids say?
GERARD PIQUÉ: They love it. They love Disney. And they love to watch, all the kids in the world, the kind of content. But also to add LaLiga and fútbol in Spain, I mean they love the news. I really hope that all the Americans can enjoy the LaLiga and Spanish fútbol because I really believe we are in the best competition worldwide.
THE MODERATOR: Already see it. Big screen TVs for the opening weekend of LaLiga, just throwing ideas out there, Epcot Center, imagine big screen TVs with the opening of LaLiga over there. Jimmy smiling at this point.
JAMES PITARO: I’ll take it to my boss, see what he says.
THE MODERATOR: Question for Javier, how do you think this agreement for ESPN would affect the next national tender, and specifically the agreement with Telefonica?
JAVIER TEBAS: Really they’re not very related, these two markets. The audiovisual market is very different from the one in Spain. But what might affect the situation, this is a sign that our fútbol wants to be with the best and wants to continue to grow the world over including Spain of course. There’s not much relationship between these two markets.
THE MODERATOR: Does ESPN plan to acquire the rights to more European or South American leagues in the future?
JAMES PITARO: I’ll take that one, and Burke, please feel free to chime in here. We just celebrated our third anniversary at ESPN+. From day one we’ve made soccer a priority for the service. Our goal, quite simply, was if you are a soccer fan you need to have ESPN+.
If you fast-forward to today, especially with this partnership with LaLiga, we believe that that’s absolutely the case. Like any other area of our business, we will acquire rights that we think make sense, that add value for our sports fans but also that add value for our business. So, we’re always looking to acquire more content for the service.
Again, because soccer has been and continues to be such a huge priority for ESPN+, we are always interested in having conversations and discussions around continuing to expand the service.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you, Jimmy? Burke, you want to jump in on that one?
BURKE MAGNUS: We made it a priority over the last few years. I will suggest that we’re always on the hunt for premium content that adds value, so we’ll take them as they come. But for today, we couldn’t be more excited to get perhaps the best league in the world for the next eight years.
That’s our focus. Our priority is to help build LaLiga in the United States. That’s their goal and we share that goal and we’re going to deliver.
THE MODERATOR: Jimmy, how important is it for the Hispanic market? Will there be LaLiga Santander and LaLiga Smartbank games called in Spanish?
JAMES PITARO: First off, it’s incredibly important. Like I said before, we’re always looking to acquire content that we believe can move the needle. Right now, the ESPN+ service is in the United States but we’re looking at serving both English-speaking and Spanish-speaking fans. It’s just another reason why this deal was so incredibly important to us — not just acquiring the English rights, but also acquiring the Spanish rights. And the answer to your second question is, yes, we will be doing that.
THE MODERATOR: Javier, what impact do you think this change of broadcasting culture will have for the sponsorship contracts for the clubs?
JAVIER TEBAS: I think it will be very important, very significant. It will be a change because it’s associated with ESPN and Disney. ESPN, in this case, gives you a great quality in the sphere of soccer in the U.S. Number two, I think we’re going to have greater ability to get more exposure through ESPN+.
The promotion that ESPN is going to do will help us to grow in many areas with our fans in the U.S. and what we’re going to do with them over the next eight years. Undoubtedly, one of the factors that really brought us close to ESPN, in addition to the excellence — they’re the best in this field in the U.S. — we were sure that the synergies of growth of LaLiga and the clubs through the sponsorships will happen in the U.S.
JAMES PITARO: Could I add, from an ESPN perspective, yes, of course we’ll be broadcasting these games. But I do want to highlight the fact that from a promotional perspective we’re going to be getting behind these games, as I mentioned before in my introduction, from our studio programming, and from a social perspective, and on our digital properties. These will all will be huge promotional engines driving to ESPN+ in these broadcasts but also helping to grow LaLiga in general.
THE MODERATOR: What role would LaLiga have in your content acquisition strategy, retaining subscribers, existing subscribers? Or will it be an engine for new subscribers coming in from the soccer fan base and especially the Hispanic market fan base?
BURKE MAGNUS: I think it’s both of those things. Obviously there’s a fan base of LaLiga-specific fans in the United States that now have a reason to follow the games to ESPN+ and will become new subscribers if they’re not already subscribers. But one of the beauties of this deal is it’s season long, it’s 380 games in the first division plus extra games in the second division and all the surround programming that Jimmy mentioned. So it spans a huge portion of the year, which will serve as a retention tool as well.
We obviously have a lot of soccer fans already coming to our platform based on the other content that we have. But we’re optimistic, very optimistic, obviously, that LaLiga fans will follow the games to our platforms. They’ll subscribe and that we’ll be able to keep them all year long with the offerings around LaLiga but also around all of our other content as well.
THE MODERATOR: Gerard Piqué, you’re a content generator yourself. And you have provided solutions for a sport in particular, which is tennis, in the new creation of the Davis Cup. When you come about thinking of the game and the situation that fútbol faces now in attracting young generations, what do you see that fútbol needs to do to attract those new fans?
GERARD PIQUÉ: Well, I have two kids, one is eight and the other is six years old. And it’s true that it’s difficult for them to focus on television the whole game — 90 minute focus on the game.
It’s different when I used to be their age. For me the only thing was fútbol. Now they have a lot to offer in terms of different channels where they have a lot of content for them. So I think that it’s a process. You cannot change from today to tomorrow, but it’s how they watch the game and how they live the game.
I think having more stats, having more information before the game, after the game — I don’t know if it’s interviews, if it’s different kind of content, that for them it’s, I would say, more easy or more interesting to focus 90 minutes. It’s not easy.
We are every year changing and as I say they have a lot of offers. So I think that fútbol in general have to adapt so they can consume and they can watch fútbol in another way as we used to do it when we were kids.
This doesn’t mean that this is less interesting. I mean, fútbol will always be very, very interesting and I think every year we have more fans. But the way they watch this sport, I think that we’re changing the next few years and this is something that in this case, media platforms, et cetera, they have to see what they are interested in and try to change it little by little.
THE MODERATOR: We live in the age of distraction, definitely.
Javier, independent from the size of this new relationship between LaLiga and ESPN, how much does LaLiga think that they can overcome the popularity of the premier league in the United States? Can LaLiga be more popular? And what will happen at the end of the first eight years?
JAVIER TEBAS: Our obsession, so to speak, is not to go beyond the Premier League. Our obsession is to grow. If we achieve that in eight year’s time, well, the data that we have today and how we are doing in the U.S. I hope will get better. In Canada, let’s not forget. And we’d like to exceed that.
Not too obsessed with the Premier League. We’ve been a little bit obsessed with the Premier League in the U.S. in recent years and in other parts of the world. But it’s not really an obsession of mine. Our obsession is LaLiga — LaLiga, to make it grow. Our obsession is to work together with ESPN, hand in hand, so that we can offer our fans, their subscribers the best possible product and a different product, which is what we’re trying to do.
I think that all subscribers of ESPN will see that our product is different the way we transmit the matches, what we’re doing. We’re going to try to get young people and the audiences that like us to continue to watch in spite of the fact that the generations change.
It’s not an obsession with the Premier League, but this is what we’re going to try to do.
THE MODERATOR: Jimmy, Stephen and Gerard Piqué, what do you believe are the characteristics of LaLiga which viewers in the United States will most be attracted to?
STEPHEN ROSS: I think they play soccer at the highest level in the world, and it’s so competitive. People really watch sports to see the competition. I think the presentation of LaLiga soccer is as good if not better than anywhere else. So, I think the fans will really enjoy that competition and seeing the very best players.
THE MODERATOR: Gerard, same question to you. What do you think?
GERARD PIQUÉ: I think in Spain our main characteristic is that players have a lot of talent. And obviously there is talent everywhere in all countries. But to compare it, to put a comparison with the Premier League, the fútbol there is much more, I would say, physical – strong players, going box to box, which is different.
Here in Spain is that, as I said, the quality of the players or the talent maybe is a little bit better or is increased during the last years in respect with the other leagues, and this is something that I would say we are very differential and special from the others.
Also the passion of the fans for the competition and for their clubs and maybe the rivalry between clubs like Barcelona and Real Madrid obviously makes this very special.
THE MODERATOR: Jimmy?
JAMES PITARO: Again, I would say the passion of the fans and the quality of play and the uniqueness of the players. One thing that we’ve spent a lot of time talking about internally here at ESPN is how can we help advance the game, advance the league through storytelling and partnering with the league and specifically the players. More behind-the-scenes-type content, going back to Gerard’s point before, the fact that kids are consuming, it’s not just soccer, it’s all sports. They’re consuming in different ways today.
The passion is there. It’s the same level of passion, it’s just they’re not necessarily watching the entire game or sitting still for the entire game anymore.
So, what do we do about that? How do we get behind the players to tell their stories to make them more interesting to the younger generation?
So that’s something that we’re very good at ESPN, quality storytelling. We have every intention of continuing to meet them there and work closely with the league and the players.
THE MODERATOR: Exciting and challenging times in things to come. Stephen, question from Michelle: You’re known as a football, American football person. How much of a soccer fan have you become in recent years, and what do you think American sports fans can learn from international soccer fans?
STEPHEN ROSS: Well, I first really learned about soccer after I bought the team and seeing how they sold out a game with Barcelona in Miami, which was a lot easier to sell out than a football game was, believe it or not. That really drew my interest to soccer and seeing how it was expanding in this country and the popularity of it. I think once you get watching it, get more involved in it, you really get drawn by it and seeing what a great sport it is.
We look forward to continue to see the growth of soccer in this country, as well as fútbol, but it’s about sports and competition, and that’s what people are really looking for today. I really enjoy being involved in both and seeing the great opportunity of all sports growing in this country.
THE MODERATOR: Maybe chants. Maybe we can bring some chants over to the stands at Dolphins games – chants and scarves.
DANIEL SILLMAN: I would just add that to, to Michelle, we’re thankful to have your support in 2017, which Gerard is very familiar with. And we’re thankful to have such an amazing Clásico event down in Miami, which was the first time ever played in the United States. That magnetic energy just speaks to fan interest, not just in American football down in South Florida, but obviously specifically in European fútbol and Spanish fútbol.
THE MODERATOR: Javier, has this agreement increased the probability like the Clásico to be played in the United States in the future?
JAVIER TEBAS: El Clásico is more difficult to export to the U.S. because it’s the match, the most important match in the world between clubs, but it’s a bit complicated. It’s a bit different. But we might take other matches, official matches. We’re looking at that.
I hope and expect that in the not too distant future the U.S. really should have some kind of official match of the Spanish League with some of our big clubs.
The Clásico is difficult. I have to be sincere. But when we achieve it, I think maybe Barcelona some seasons, Madrid other seasons, Clásico Madrid, but we’re going to do it. We’ve tried and we’ll continue to do this. After this deal with ESPN, our fans deserve, in the U.S., deserve an official top-level match in the U.S.
THE MODERATOR: Gerard, how do you think LaLiga can keep promoting the competition in the United States? Also, you as a businessman and a player, do you think this agreement will help to promote even more the players and the clubs?
GERARD PIQUÉ: Yes, for sure. Promoting LaLiga in the United States and Canada, it’s very important strategically for LaLiga and for all the clubs that we play in the competition, and also for the players.
I mean, at the end of the day we all agree that America is the leader in everything they do and in sports, of course.
So every time that we have more penetration or that more games are live on a channel like ESPN in America, it makes you have a much more higher impact in the country. This makes LaLiga and all the clubs and all the players that we participate more popular; fans know much more about all of them, and this is great news for all of us.
THE MODERATOR: Javier, how did you end your contract with beIN Sports, because it was a very important part for LaLiga in other territories?
JAVIER TEBAS: Yes, obviously, the relation — we’re very thankful for the 10 years that we were with them. We had to change in the U.S. They’ve collaborated to make this change happen. Extraordinary partners in many parts of the world still.
In the U.S. they will always be associated with us because beIN is part of the history of LaLiga. They’ve been associated with, in France, in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and we’re going to continue to work with them hand in hand as we have done in recent times.
But as I’ve said before, it was time to take a step forward and be with the best, the excellent players in sport, in the U.S. But we’re delighted to have been with them.
THE MODERATOR: Jimmy, where is LaLiga going to be available in Canada? And how can we follow the Spanish competition?
JAMES PITARO: Burke, do you want to take the Canada availability question?
BURKE MAGNUS: Yes. We have acquired rights for Canada in this deal. The details are still being worked through. But it will be on TSN and RDS and their various services up there, but we’re going to release more specific detail in the coming weeks.
THE MODERATOR: Jimmy and Burke, LaLiga can only be watched on ESPN+, or will it also be available on cable channels such as ESPN Deportes and terrestrial networks like ABC?
JAMES PITARO: So it’s primarily focused on ESPN+, but we will have select games on our linear networks like ESPN and even potentially ABC. On top of that, as I mentioned before, we will also have LaLiga content regularly show up in our studio programming through specific dedicated shows but also, of course, incorporating it into our existing studio programming like SportsCenter.
All 380 games from LaLiga Santander will be made available within ESPN+, but again we will look regularly at opportunities to also broadcast some games on our linear networks ESPN and ABC.
THE MODERATOR: Javier, do you think that this agreement shows that contrary to what the Super League says means that the demand for Spanish fútbol is growing in general; so is this a good agreement for LaLiga Santander, so you know that Spanish fútbol is not just two or three big clubs?
JAVIER TEBAS: No, there’s no doubt. I’ve been saying that for some years now. This shows that the strength of national competitions and LaLiga, in this case, and the Premier League, the Bundesliga, is very strong.
We don’t have to create or invent new competitions, because the sport of fútbol has all these interesting events. In the U.S. now, you are interested in LaLiga, and this shows our strength, our position of strength, versus what some of the Super League clubs have said.
THE MODERATOR: Gerard, how is it to practice with Messi every single day?
GERARD PIQUÉ: It’s a challenge; it makes you a better player to have to play against him every day. But, yeah, I had the opportunity to train with him since I was 13 when he joined fútbol Barcelona Careme, and it’s been a pleasure; the best player of all time.
FastScripts Transcript by ASAP Sports