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La Liga on Facebook: Or how to kill a league’s following

In its greed, La Liga appears to have shot itself in the foot.

football Updated: Aug 18, 2018 23:58 IST
Wasi Manazir
Wasi Manazir
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
la liga,facebook,india
Soccer Football - La Liga Santander - FC Barcelona vs Real Sociedad - Camp Nou, Barcelona, Spain - May 20, 2018 General view before the match(REUTERS)

Friday, 17 August was pencilled in my calendar. It was the day the 2018/19 La Liga season was to kick off. The most technical and the most dominant league in the world was back after a month-long lull of elite football following the conclusion of the World Cup in mid July.

But there was a sense of unease when I discovered that the matches of the Spanish top flight won’t be on TV. In a first for a football competition, Facebook has signed an exclusive three-year agreement to screen all 380 Spanish top-flight football matches across south Asia. It means there will be no La Liga game on TV in India. Not even one game, not even the most lucrative game in all of football: the Clasico.

I consoled myself thinking that it was eventually going to happen anyway. Streaming services like Amazon and Facebook have been buying exclusive screening rights to premium sports competitions for quite some time.

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In April, Amazon signed a five-year deal worth $40 million for the exclusive broadcast of the US Open in the UK on its Prime platform. They also have the rights to screen 20 Premier League games this season for their UK Prime customers. Facebook streamed 2017/18 Champions League matches up to the quarter-final stage the Fox Sports page. The social media giant had unsuccessfully bid for the digital rights of the Indian Premier League last year.

Streaming deal for a premium sports event was eventually coming on Facebook for the Indian audience, the only question was when.

The biggest reason for my pessimism regarding La Liga being broadcast exclusively on Facebook was the poor internet speeds in the country. Despite rapidly improving internet speeds in India, the country still ranks among the bottom rung when it comes to broadband speeds. How unpleasant would it be if the screen froze in the midst of a sublime move or a spectacular strike? A poor broadcast would suck all the joy out of a free-flowing game like football. And a delayed stream would be no good either because one of the apps on my phone would send me a notification immediately in case of major event in a match.

However, it also occurred to me that if Facebook could find a way to increase efficiency of its platforms in the name of Free Basics, they would likely utilise the tech to give an uninterrupted access to the football.

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Then there was the fear of being bombarded by Facebook’s targeted ads on the basis of matches I would be watching on its platform. I could be accosted for anything, from a seven-day, six-night trip to Madrid to an excursion of Antoni Gaudi’s architectural marvels combined with fruit shopping in Las Ramblas; from a tour of the historic Alhambra to—horror of horrors—CR7-branded underpants. Everything would be fair game.

Fears notwithstanding, I had to watch the football. So on Friday night I logged into my Facebook account and managed to catch the last 10 minutes of the league opener between Girona and Real Valladolid. It was the Real Betis vs Levante that followed the opener that I was more excited about.

Betis had played some fantastic football last season under Quique Setien and were one of the most exciting teams in Europe. They narrowly missed out on Champions League qualification and despite them selling some of their key players like Fabian Ruiz, Riza Durmisi, and Antonio Adan, there was hope of some good football.

But the hope soon died. Not of the good football but of a watchable stream. Right from the first minute it fluctuated from a lively HD to a blur of 144p, and at worst the screen just froze. The game was ruined for me. The most frustrating part was the realisation that this won’t be a one off and all the Spanish top flight games this season—and probably the next two as well—will likely suffer the same fate.

The raging Madrid derby is ruined, the fiery derbi barceloni is ruined, the unusually competitive games of the big three at Valencia’s Mestalla are ruined, and the Basque derby is ruined. And ruined are the remaining 378 games of this La Liga season.

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Betis had me excited on the basis of last season but it was Levante who triumphed 3-0 on Friday. Their second goal scored by the skipper Jose Luis Morales was as good as any you will see this season but I could only catch it after the fact. The spontaneity was lost.

The news of La Liga rights going to Facebook came just two days before the league’s president Javier Tebas announced his audacious plan to host competitive league games in the United States, starting as early as this season. The stunning announcement is a consequence of the Spanish football’s attempt to conquer new markets.

In the wake of the deal, Oscar Mayo, La Liga’s international development director, said: “This agreement ensures not only a bright future for soccer in North America, but also for La Liga and our clubs.” The league further added: “The operation will support the league’s growth in the US and Canada through consumer-related activities including youth academies, development of youth soccer coaches, marketing agreements, consumer activations, exhibition matches and plans to have an official La Liga Santander match played in the US.”

La Liga’s seemingly endless appetite to capture new audience for its football has seen it open an office in New Delhi in 2016. Among other things, the league regularly screens the Clasico at well-attended, spacious venues in the capital.

To be fair, La Liga isn’t alone in its attempt to lure new fans to its product. The Premier League, Bundesliga and Serie A have all been after eyeballs from Asia as well as other continents with growing appetite for the global game.

In the given circumstances, the decision to award La Liga rights to an internet platform in a country with severe bandwidth issues defies logic. While the Spanish league fans with modest internet speeds will be tearing their hair out, no one will be stopping them from switching to other leagues.

Serie A will be the biggest beneficiaries of what appears to be a severe blunder from the eminence of La Liga. The Italian top flight is in ascendancy and its clubs have done great business in this transfer window.

Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the greatest goalscorers of the modern era, is the biggest name to change clubs this summer, having gone from Real Madrid to Juventus. And the Portuguese national team skipper, who has a combined following of 335 million across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, has already made a pronounced impact on the Italian peninsula. In July, Juventus had the most social media interactions of any club in the world.

While Juventus will be the favourites to win an eighth consecutive league title this season, there is sufficiently quality across Serie A. Inter Milan have sufficiently strengthened and so have AC Milan. Napoli will again be in the mix after a brilliant campaign last term when they accrued a club record 91 points. Roma, too, will look to build on an impressive 2017/18 campaign when they reached the semi-finals of the Champions League.

It all points to a competitive and compelling season of Serie A football.

The broadcast timings of the Italian top flight are in direct competition to La Liga. Contrast the competitive Serie A broadcast on TV to La Liga on an uncertain stream and it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Italian football steals a march on its Spanish counterpart in south Asia.

In its greed, La Liga appears to have shot itself in the foot.

First Published: Aug 18, 2018 12:08 IST