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La Liga set to play first game in United States in new marketing deal

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 back! Lionel Messi and Barcelona are heavy favourites to win the league, but can anyone challenge them and lift the trophy in 2019?
Relive the best strikes from the ICC, including a brilliant, overhead kick from Liverpool's Xherdan Shaqiri.

A regular-season La Liga game is set to be played in the United States for the first time after the league reached an agreement with Relevent, the organizers of the International Champions Cup, on a 15-year joint venture for promotion in North America.

Although the date and location are yet to be determined, organizers expect the game to be this season and it would mark the first time La Liga has played outside of Europe. It would also mean that one team would have to give up a home game in Spain in a stark departure from tradition.

"This extraordinary joint venture is the next giant leap in growing soccer's popularity in North America," Relevent chairman and owner Stephen Ross said. "This unique relationship will create new opportunities for millions of North American soccer fans to experience the most passionate, exciting, and highest level of soccer in the world."

Ross also owns the Miami Dolphins and is a part owner of their home, Hard Rock Stadium, which would make the Florida city the frontrunner to host the event.

"It's not hard to figure out where we would want it to be based on our ownership with Stephen Ross," Relevent CEO Danny Sillman said via telephone. "That part isn't too difficult to figure out. [The match will be held] much sooner than the public is expecting."

Relevent executive chairman Charlie Stillitano told the Washington Post that a game has been discussed for the second half of the upcoming 2018-19 season. Stillitano also said the game would have to include at least one of Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Sevilla or Valencia, with a preference for the first three.

"It's a 15-year deal and we want to start it out right," Stillitano said on ESPN FC TV. "Obviously we have to have a recognizable team. So I think it's critical that we have one of the top five or six teams.

"We are working with [La Liga] right now and nothing's been decided. We just have to find the right game in the calendar and we want to do it this season. The other part will be that we want it to be that there's not a cup game in the [week between] so there's a little bit of rest for the players.

"We're trying to respect the game, we are trying to respect the players. We know it's a new things and obviously in Europe, outside of the Champions League, you are not travelling great distances and this would be a big trip without question."

Barcelona and Real Madrid played each other for the first time outside of Europe last year at Hard Rock Stadium as part of Relevent's International Champions Cup, a summer tournament that the clubs use for preseason. Real Madrid then returned to the Dolphins' stadium last month to face Manchester United.

Moving any league game outside teams' own countries to the U.S. would need to be approved at least by both FIFA and its North American regional body CONCACAF, and the U.S. Soccer Federation would also be involved. 

The announcement sparked debate over whether the Premier League could renew plans for an experimental "39th game" to be played abroad, but the English league, contacted by ESPN FC, said there are currently no plans to follow La Liga's lead.

The promotional venture, called LaLiga North America, will represent the league in the United States and Canada in all business and development activities. The organization will support the league's growth through the establishment of youth academies, development of youth soccer coaches, marketing agreements, consumer activations, and exhibition matches.

LaLiga North America will be led by Boris Gartner, formerly the head of strategy at Televisa. He also has executive experience with Univision.

"We're devoted to growing the passion for soccer around the world," La Liga president Javier Tebas said. "This groundbreaking agreement is certain to give a major impulse to the popularity of the beautiful game in the U.S. and Canada. Relevent has filled stadiums across the U.S. with the International Champions Cup, [and] we're thrilled to partner with them on a joint mission to grow soccer in North America."

LaLiga North America will also handle the sale of media rights on the continent once the deal with beIN Sports expires at the conclusion of the 2019-20 season.

Sillman said that while there will be efforts on multiple fronts to increase revenue and build awareness, the media rights will be the biggest revenue-driver. He said La Liga is already the second-largest soccer league in terms of media rights, behind the Premier League.

"The [North America] media rights now sell for about $120 million to beIN, and if you look at the upticks of the other leagues -- the EPL doubled, the Champions League doubled -- even if we grew 15 to 20 percent a year, you're talking [a total of] $2 billion just in media value," Sillman said.

Real Madrid faced Manchester United at Hard Rock Stadium in July.
Real Madrid faced Manchester United at Hard Rock Stadium in July.

Sillman said Tebas has been working on the next media rights deal for the last six to 12 months, so the intention is to sustain that effort.

"Obviously, they want to maximize their distribution, so we'll be moving very quickly with Tebas, getting in the marketplace, and understanding what the broadcast and streaming partners are looking for," Sillman said. "La Liga works with Facebook in India and a bunch of the digital players as well. We'll start to figure out the best way to carve up the rights from the digital and live broadcast in Spanish, English, and French for the U.S. and Canada and start to move fairly fast on putting a strategy together."

The process of joining forces with La Liga began 18 months ago with an extensive proposal process, Sillman said. Relevent was chosen in February in part because it had experience working with Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid through the International Champions Cup.

The particulars of the joint venture were finalized in the last few days.

"Tebas saw what we did with El Clasico [in Miami] as a part of our ICC tournament last summer," Sillman said. "Our ability to tell the story of the history behind the clubs, the league, and the matchups really [helped] build a great spectacle for American fans.

"The [regular-season] match will be a big piece of the joint venture as well. With the precedent set for American sports to be exported all over the world -- MLS going to Japan, the NBA in Europe, the NFL in Mexico and Europe -- there still hasn't been anything with European football in the States, so it's going to be really exciting from that standpoint to import the games to American fans and give them a chance to see it up close for those who may not get the chance to see it in Spain."

Spain's players' association protested the announcement, saying players were not consulted ahead of time and calling it was unfair for fans in Spain.

"Players are not a bargaining chip that can be used in businesses that only benefit third parties,'' association president David Aganzo said.

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