For a sport like football to reach television screens all across the world, one of the most crucial details is fixing the kick-off time. Yes, yes, football speaks a universal language, binding everyone irrespective of race, religion or culture – but not of time zone. So, unless you're an absolute diehard fan, you may well be catching up on the score and highlights the next day.
In India, until the La Liga inked a deal with broadcasters Sony (now Sony ESPN) last year, fans could only get to watch the El Clasico derby between Barcelona and Real Madrid on TV. There was no overall distribution deal for the subcontinent. The Champions League and international football gave Indian viewers only a very limited glimpse of the Spanish domestic league.
This season, though, the La Liga has decided to go more Asian, opening an office in India (their sixth international office). What's more, they're planning changes to their match schedules to allow more Indian Standard Time audiences to watch their game live, according to Javier Tebas, the La Liga president. True to his promise, the Barcelona-Leganes match on Sunday, September 17, kicked off at 4.30 India time – which is also a convenient evening viewing slot for east Asian audiences.
Television deals are the money-spinner
One major difference till the end of the 2015-‘16 season between Spain and other European leagues was the way television distribution deals were structured. Prior to the 2016-‘17 season, each Spanish club had the power to negotiate individual television deals. This rule created a massive gap in revenue between Spain’s top two clubs – Real Madrid and FC Barcelona – and the other 18. Which broadcaster, after all, would pay a Granada or an Osasuna as much as a Real Madrid or a Barcelona?
This year, the La Liga has centralised its distribution policy, mirroring England’s, and will not allow individual clubs to sell their own rights. With the new rule providing a level playing field, newly promoted clubs Las Palmas and Gijon have increased their revenues by 574% and 569%, respectively.
One of the main reasons English football has become one of the world’s most recognisable and watched domestic leagues is because of their accommodating scheduling policy. Afternoon kick-offs in England work as evening falls in South and East Asia, and translate to early mornings in North America. Though unfair to North America, this system has been successful in integrating the Premier League into football culture across the globe. Fan cafes and screenings exist even in Mumbai suburbs, just as they do in parts of London, New York, or Manchester.
Premier League over La Liga?
In the last decade, Spanish football and their professional clubs steadily grabbed more mindspace among fans. Since 2006, the UEFA Champions League has been won by a Spanish team six our of 11 times. In the last 13 Europa League finals, a Spanish team has emerged winners on eight of occasions. Between 2008 and 2012, the Spanish national team won three major trophies – two Euros and a World Cup.
Obviously, Spanish football has a great deal of bragging rights, but unfortunately the world has not been able to keep up with them every game. Turning the La Liga into a much friendlier viewing prospect for the millions of people who watch live football on television in India is an exciting prospect. This also coincides with the fact that an existing Spanish club, Atletico Madrid, already owns a stake in the Indian Super League club Atletico De Kolkata.
A rise in the viewership of the ISL and the Spanish League will now become a common target for clubs like Atletico, and this could mean more messages like this in the future from clubs across Europe.
This shared sense of fandom is an important development tool, especially for grassroots football. Atletico Madrid’s sharp rise in Europe was due to a breakaway La Liga win in 2013-'14, and heroic performances in the Champions League. A direct effect of this popularity is when you see an Atletico shirt at your local neighbourhood pitch, and find out that Koke has been invited to the ISL final.
But can the home base be ignored?
In June 2015, Tebas had proposed a similar change in scheduling to accommodate a friendlier screening time in the United Kingdom. But, according to Palco23, the Spanish league lost around 140 million television viewers – a 14% drop – over the previous season.
La Liga, unlike its English counterpart, offers a more static version of a domestic league. Its two main teams, FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, hog Spanish airtime and headlines, while Atletico feature as Europe’s favourite underdogs, with people in South Asia caring about them only if they make the Champions League finals.
This decision by the Spanish league authorities marks an important shift in European football culture. Just seven years ago, the La Liga had found itself absent from Indian television. The erstwhile ESPN-Star did not renew their rights, and the 2009-‘10 season was not telecast in India.
It is now evident that large “markets” outside their native countries posses enough strength to help bring in more money, viewership and merchandise sales, in turn helping out their domestic league. In India, there's already a large following for Real and Barca. If business possibilities make the La Liga tune itself to Indian fans' needs to some extent, no one in the country will be complaining.
And weekend evenings could actually pose a question on what to watch on TV: EPL or La Liga?