La Liga TV rights leaves UK fans in the dark

At the time of writing football fans in the UK and Ireland will not be able to watch La Liga on their TV or any online streaming service in the coming 2019/20 season. No Lionel Messi, no Eden Hazard, no Kieran Trippier as he swaps Tottenham for a club that annually threatens to mount a title challenge but pales away long before the end.

The Spanish league and its intermediaries ended the bidding process saying that no satisfactory bids had been received. It is an extraordinary state of affairs given that La Liga has been easily the most successful league in the last decade, boasts two world famous mega clubs and the world’s best player. (Messi, not Luka Modric in case anyone from the Ballon d’Or voting panel is confused)

What is also extraordinary is that the formal tender process began only a few weeks before the start of the campaign. Yet more extraordinary was that it was still undecided whether the league would feature Friday and Monday games. Most of the people with experience of dealing with the acquisition of Spanish football TV rights have become deeply cynical but inviting bids without being able to say when games would be played was a fascinating new twist.

If I am acerbic on this subject, you might forgive me if I point out that I worked as a freelance commentator on Spanish football for Sky Sports for a decade and that I effectively lost half of my job when the rights changed hands. Sky were outbid by over-the-top streaming service Eleven Sports in 2018. Eleven, owned by Leeds United’s Andrea Radrizzani, had a relationship with La Liga in other countries but it was a major shock when they acquired exclusive rights in the UK and Ireland.

A hardcore of La Liga fans signed up and enjoyed the extra programming and highlights streamed direct from La Liga TV, the sort of thing not seen here since Sky’s much loved Revista de la Liga was axed. But to put it bluntly, no one had heard of Eleven Sports last summer and a dispiriting number of people still hadn’t when the first El Clasico came round at the end of October. “So, where’s the Spanish football now?” said almost everybody I spoke to that week. Sky’s number crunchers took notice of the lack of cancelled subscriptions and felt justified not to have bid more than they did.

Radrizzani was forced to go back to La Liga and negotiate a way out. The second half of last season saw the rights split three ways: Eleven steaming La Liga TV, Dublin-based subscription channel Premier Sports showing four games, and ITV4 showing the second choice match, free to them and to viewers.

Many of us assumed something similar would continue when the new three-year rights package was sold but when the process finally got started there were no takers. Eleven Sports are still interested but La Liga’s negotiators clearly believe they can hold out for more. Sky Sports, Premier Sport and BT Sport were all invited to bid; there was a flexible list of options including exclusivity or the same deal that Premier had last season. If there were bids, they were small ones.

So why did it fail? How has La Liga become the Gareth Bale of football competitions – world class but unwanted?

Firstly, let me be fair. The price of Spanish domestic rights has gone up, and in North America, where La Liga has formed a partnership with marketing company Relevant, they are confident of a large rise in TV revenue when the rights are next sold.

La Liga’s inability to sell itself in the homeland of Gareth Bale and Kieran Trippier definitely has a parochial element. In essence, those of us who argued that the Spanish had the best product lost the argument. We pointed to the successes of Real Madrid and Barcelona in the Champions League, to Sevilla and Atletico Madrid in the Europa League but it fell on deliberately deaf ears. People don’t want to hear about UEFA co-efficient points. At least not until England takes over. This isn’t a rational debate.

The season just played in England has been hailed as the best ever in the Premier League. That was a campaign in which the top two clubs accumulated 195 points between them, the third place team trailed 25 points behind and there was an incredible gap of 86 points between top and bottom. You might remember when La Liga was damned as an uncompetitive two-team league for just that sort of thing. After last season’s successes in Europe, the Premier League’s cheerleaders were able to adapt the arguments used against it for the previous decade.

Of course there has been more than blind optimism behind the Premier League’s commercial success. Since 1992 it has been superbly packaged and marketed. Relationships have been built around the world, the quality of the TV production is superior to the Spanish and the players bring an extra international element. The organisation has a standard of professionalism that eludes La Liga where match rounds are scheduled bafflingly late. I write awaiting news of when the Spanish season starts but I have Premier League dates confirmed in my diary until the end of October. Sky and BT bought their Premier League packages more than a year before La Liga even invited them to bid for contracts which were supposed to start at the same time.

And then there are the empty seats. If I could change one thing about Spanish football it would be hierarchy’s contemptuous attitude to fans, particularly those who travel away. Football is like comedy to the extent that we enjoy watching it more with other people from whom we take our cues.

Celta Vigo vs Athletic Club might be technically superior to Brighton vs Bournemouth but it remains tougher to sell if the Spanish match is played in front of 13,000 while the English game gets more than 30,000 in the same sized stadium. West Ham and Newcastle have both seen frosty relations between owners and fans but still regularly attract around 60,000 and 52,000 respectively. Espanyol’s impressive surge to Europa League qualification saw them go nine unbeaten to finish the season but fewer than 16,000 watched them against Celta Vigo whereas 26,000 turned up on the last day against Real Sociedad. The supporters exist but lots of them are reluctant to turn up every week. Empty seats make bad television.

Hopefully this blog will soon be out of date and a channel close to you will be announcing a La Liga deal soon – after all Bale’s fans in Wales need some way of seeing him sitting in the stand at the Bernabeu staring at his phone. I am told that La Liga have spoken to Amazon who have bought into the UK domestic market but the American giants played no significant role in the Premier League’s overseas sale, and they didn’t get that rich by being generous. The harsh reality is that the English market is lucrative only for English clubs and that the likes of you and me don’t matter much to league chief Javier Tebas and his fellow La Liga powerbrokers.