Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, Blog, Blog Post, Clubs, Real Madrid, Spanish Primera División


Relevent Sports chairman Charlie Stillitano explains his vision to build and promote the La Liga brand through games played in the U.S.
With La Liga agreeing a 15-year joint venture to bring games to the U.S., FC’s Craig Burley explains the benefits he sees for all parties involved.

La Liga is coming to the U.S.! Thursday’s announcement of a 15-year partnership with Relevent, a multinational media, sports and entertainment company, means Lionel Messi and his Barcelona teammates could line up for a league game in America. 

While such an occurrence would be a first for a European football league, other sports have been playing games overseas for years, as our ESPN colleagues explain.

American Football

What is the history of playing overseas?

The NFL began staging preseason games in London in 1983 and the first regular-season game beyond U.S. borders was a 2005 matchup between the Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers in Mexico City. The schedule has grown to the point where there will be four international games in 2018: Three in London and one in Mexico City.

How was the idea of initially received?

No team or fan base likes losing home games, although the 22-year span between the first international preseason game and the first in the regular season game helped to de-sensitize. Recently, the teams to give up home games are from a group that have old stadiums, are in the process of renovation or otherwise have challenges selling seats.

Has the venture been successful?

Yes. NFL international games typically sell out within a day, and in London about 40 percent of percent of ticket buyers purchase seats to the entire season’s slate, giving the league a strong base of mini-season ticket holders. There is plenty of room to grow — especially in China — but the league has made significant inroads in Europe and Mexico. — Kevin Seifert

Basketball

What is the history of playing games overseas?

Exhibition games date back to 1978 but the first regular-season game between two NBA teams outside of North America was on Nov. 2, 1990, when the Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns met in Tokyo. NBA teams have been traveling overseas just about every year since.

The NBA is hugely popular in China, where it is followed on TV and social media by hundreds of millions of fans. The league schedules games in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen. In addition, sneaker companies send players to China every summer to promote their products.

How was the idea of initially received?

Former NBA commissioner David Stern was keen on spreading the NBA’s global footprint and international fans packed arenas from the start. For the most part, coaches and players saw the games as an adventure and a chance to see the world, but former Bullet and Hall of Famer Elvin Hayes was not one of them. It was reported that Hayes refused to leave the team bus on a tourist stop at the Great Wall of China, saying: “I’ve seen a big wall before.”

Has the venture been successful?

There have been 190 games in 20 countries overall and, in the last five years alone, the likes of London, Istanbul, Manila, Beijing, Shanghai, Berlin, Rio de Janeiro and Mexico City have hosted preseason or regular-season match-ups.

Could that number have been higher? “We could easily sell out two games, three games, four games,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said earlier this year about a game in London. “The demand is there and the interest is there. It’s really more a question of our schedule and whether we can make it work.” — Chris Ramsay

Baseball

What is the history of playing games overseas?

Baseball has a long history of travelling overseas, starting with Albert Spalding’s six-month tour that launched in October of 1888 and included stops at the Eiffel Tower, the Colosseum in Rome and the Sphinx in Egypt (of course, Spalding’s efforts were in part to sell his sporting goods).

MLB played its first regular-season games outside the U.S. and Canada in 1996, when the Padres and Mets played a three-game series in Monterrey, Mexico. After one game in Monterrey in 1999, the big plunge to Japan was made in 2000, when the Mets and Cubs played two games at the Tokyo Dome (Mets fans will remember Benny Agbayani’s pinch-hit grand slam in the 11th inning). Teams have returned to Japan in 2004, 2008 and 2012, while the Dodgers and Diamondbacks played two games at the Sydney Cricket Ground in Australia in 2014. The A’s and Mariners will return to Tokyo in 2019 while the Yankees and Red Sox will play two games in London in late June — the first games ever played in the UK.

How was the idea of initially received?

The games have generally been well received, although a two-game series in Puerto Rico in 2016 between the Marlins and Pirates was moved back to Miami after players expressed concerns about the Zika virus. The Indians and Twins played in Puerto Rico earlier this season, to bring some goodwill in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. The games in Japan have certainly been very popular among Japanese fans, although players have expressed concerns about the travel. The series in Australia was an even bigger travel issue and games were played on March 22-23, in the middle of spring training.

Has the venture been successful?

It’s probably good promotion for the sport but, given all the players from Puerto Rico or Japan or Mexico, it’s as much a “thank you” as a big money-maker. Plus, the seven-year span between games in Japan hints at a reluctance of teams to play there. The series in London has already received criticism, primarily from Yankees and Red Sox fans who will be losing a home game.

Still, given the less extreme time change compared to the games in Japan and Australia and the teams involved, that series has a chance to bring much more publicity to the sport than the other overseas games. — David Schoenfield

Hockey

What is the history of playing games overseas?

Due to its Canadian roots and multinational player makeup, the NHL has been holding games overseas for the better part of a century. In the 2000s, there was an international game boom: Teams played exhibitions against foreign clubs and, in 2007, the NHL played its first regular-season games in Europe. That tradition continues in 2018-19 with games in Sweden and Finland.

How was the idea of initially received?

Fans understand the need to grow the game internationally, which means they appreciate European tours. However, they were critical last season when the NHL brought its product abroad at the same time it pulled stars from the Winter Olympics. Players enjoy preseason trips from a team-bonding perspective, but some have groused about travel fatigue and, privately, the inequity of having to play meaningful regular-season games in Europe.

Has the venture been successful?

Domestically, the games are of no consequence but, internationally, they’re treated as a spectacle; two November Florida Panthers-Winnipeg Jets games in Finland sold out in hours. Revenue from global media rights increased by 40 percent as of 2016, with international games and the World Cup of Hockey cited as influences.

But the real test is China. The NHL partnered with the country’s government to bring games to Shanghai, Beijing and Shenzhan in 2017 and 2018. If hockey can gain a foothold before the NHL solidifies its popularity in a potential return to the Olympics for 2022 in Beijing, these international forays could pay off. — Greg Wyshynski

Rugby Union

To date two matches from England’s Premiership have been played in the U.S., with mixed results in terms of attendance. In 2016, London Irish hosted Saracens at the home of the New York Red Bulls and the official crowd registered at 14,811; a year later, just 6,271 supporters turned up to see Newcastle Falcons play Saracens in Philadelphia.

The latter match was the second in a five-game agreement and Premiership Rugby CEO Mark McCafferty admitted that the sparse crowd showed “the size of the task, and it’s a big one” facing rugby if they are to gate-crash the American market. McCafferty later predicted Premiership Rugby would sell out 18,000-capacity grounds such as Philadelphia within three years.

A crowd in excess of 60,000 packed into Chicago’s Soldier Field for a thrilling Test between Ireland and New Zealand two years ago but, while there is interest and growing participation in rugby Stateside, at domestic level it is still a work in progress.

Leagues will continue trying to break the market, but cannot expect fans to merely rock up for the spectacle; more needs to be done to illustrate the star quality on show, as well as playing up rivalries and putting on a near-faultless tailgating experience. Moreover, as opportunities are explored, there must be awareness of losing touch with loyal, local fan bases. — Tom Hamilton



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