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Sergi Torrents: La Liga’s approaches to emphasize the Chinese market

By Pu Yang 23 Jun 2016

With the UEFA EURO 2016 moving on to the “last 16” stage, the five major football nations in Europe, including defending champions Spain alongside England, Italy, Germany and the home team France are in the same half of the draw. The upcoming Spain v Italy clash is one of the most eagerly awaited games of the tournament given that the Spaniards smashed the Italians 4-0 in the final of EURO 2012.

It is still unknown whether Spain will continue their saga in the biggest international soccer competition in Europe or Italy will find their way for a dramatic turnaround as the underdog. But what’s clear is that Spain has been a leading football nation not only in Europe, but also the world, for the past decade with their national team winning two EUROs in a row and a FIFA World Cup. Club-wise, La Liga teams, especially Barcelona and Real Madrid, have been the dominant powerhouses in European club football over recent years.

What has made Spanish club football so special in recent years? And more importantly, how is the Chinese audience engaged by La Liga?

With these kinds of puzzle in mind, Yutang Sports had the opportunity to speak with Sergi Torrents, General Manger of La Liga Greater China. We discussed La Liga’s presence in China, the league’s media partnership with Chinese broadcasters and their emphasis on the market。

Sergi Torrents

Having set up an office in Beijing in 2014, La Liga is set to open their second one in Shanghai this autumn with the strategy to emphasize the growing market. Speaking at a round-table discussion at the World Soccer Congress 2016 in Shanghai, Sergi revealed that La Liga had changed their strategy to focus on the Asian and Chinese markets which are key to them. “La Liga have pushed very hard to emphasize the Asian and Chinese markets”, he said. There are now more La Liga matches kicking off at prime time (Beijing Time) in order to engage more with Asian and Chinese audiences.

However, many would have worried about La Liga’s media outreach in mainland China if BTV hadn’t picked up where La Liga and CCTV had left off in broadcasting last season. This was a bold move, given that BTV had never previously spent anything on TV rights to sports events. But the success of the free-to-air approach on BTV, instead of CCTV, to La Liga, really proved the attraction of the league. According to Sergi, there is only a minor gap between BTV and CCTV in terms of La Liga viewership despite the fact that CCTV remains the leading TV platform in China. And more importantly, the BTV deal, plus the fixed kick-off time in many La Liga games, lets the Chinese audience know “where and when to see La Liga every week”.

As a result, live La Liga games on BTV had higher ratings than live Bundesliga or Serie A games on CCTV when they were aired at the same time. It demonstrates that Li Liga is an influential European football league, only second to the English Premier League, to the Chinese TV audience regardless of TV channels.  On the other hand, it is important for La Liga to choose the licensed broadcaster in such an important market. Speaking of the PPTV deal, Sergi said they were happy about the partnership with PPTV. And the wish to “offer a better experience for the audience” partly contributed to La Liga’s decision to join forces with PPTV.

In a world where digital is playing a more and more significant role, it is understandable that PPTV has enjoyed the 2015/2016 season as the exclusive digital broadcaster of La Liga. Spanish top-flight football gained 500m views in the past season, over 60% of which reached the audience live, according to PPTV Sports General Manager Zhang Xun. A live "El Clasico" between Real Madrid and Barcelona screened on PPTV reached a record of 6 million fans last season. In this regard, La Liga and its leader in Greater China have paved a sound way for the commercialization of the league’s media rights in the Chinese market.

In addition to the media rights line, Sergi and his team are “constantly looking for companies in this territory to “partner” in order to activate the benefits of their competition, as part of the “sponsorship and licensing” businesses. In this way they can work with local companies and sponsors to help promote brands as well as the value of La Liga. Moreover, in return, they are here to offer “sports programmes” in order to help promote football in the market.  

“When we’re receiving an income in this market, we really want to come back with something tangible for the fans in this market. So (as) La Liga is a football competition, what we know is about football. So what we can support and add to this market is knowledge about football. So we select basically the best institutions to work with. We are developing concrete football programmes to not only promote football but also promote the value of the sport, which is key for us. Promoting the value of the sport is promoting health, this is the key message we want to leave,” Sergi concluded.

Under the strategy, La Liga has been running a training program with China’s Ministry of Education for a year, covering kids of different ages in 40 different schools across 10 Chinese cities with 40 Spanish coaches. Additionally, La Liga is also collaborating with Nike on the “Train the Trainer” program, in which they are training 3,000 Chinese PE teachers. More importantly, Sergi and his team are trying to introduce more of these kind of programmes here in China, as part of their social responsibilities, to help pave the way for the growth of the sport.

Based on the China- emphasized strategy, La Liga has also been trying to bring more Spanish club football to Chinese fans. Last year, Atle Sociedad and Rayo Vallecano all had pre-season tours in Shanghai. More importantly, La Liga not only impresses the Chinese football fans but also investors. Three La Liga clubs, namely Atletico Madrid, Espanol and Granada, are all receivers of investment from Chinese businessmen. Sergi believes “Chinese investors are interested in the best (football) assets” and that’s why they are interested in buying into Spanish clubs. Although there is competition for the Chinese market among European football leagues, Sergi shows his belief in La Liga as “the best sport league” in the world in terms of performance. As a result, La Liga clubs are seemingly enjoying a close relationship with Chinese investors. 

The more Chinese factors in La Liga, the more opportunities the league will potentially have in China. Although there is real competition for the audience market among major European leagues, La Liga, with an effective strategy in the market, is on their way to better engage with Chinese supporters. Given the growing interest of the sport and the massive population in the country, the world’s “best league” is winning the hearts of Chinese fans bit by bit.

Proofread by Sean O Diobhilin   

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