“We broke the traditions of football in Spain,” Javier Tebas says in a manner so matter-of-fact that it is genuinely startling. But then the president of La Liga has long been unafraid to speak his mind and, as such, it is not overly surprising he is so forthright during a discussion centred on his desire to see his country’s leading division become the most popular in the world. The ambition is clear and if that means radical change than so be it.
That has perhaps been seen most clearly in La Liga with the scheduling of games. Under Tebas, who took charge of Spain’s top flight in April 2013, every fixture is now staggered to ensure they can be screened live on television, at home and abroad. At one stage this had the effect of stretching each set of La Liga fixtures across four days, from Friday to Monday, with some games on Saturday and Sunday kicking off late morning, a significant adjustment in a country where for so long matches took place solely at the weekend and later in the day.
“We always have to think about traditions but we have been working for the past five years to change the schedule so there are no overlapping matches,” says Tebas. “People said that would mean less spectators going to the stadium but instead more are: 25% more. Why? Because there were times before that didn’t allow families to watch football in the stadium but now there are many family-friendly times. The schedule is more flexible.”
That may be true but the president’s tinkering with the schedule has also been controversial, specifically in regards to the scheduling of games on Monday evenings. The move proved so unpopular that it led to protests, among them the mock funeral put on by Alaves supporters during their home win over Levante in February. Spectators carried a coffin into the Mendizorroza and proceeded to hold up a banner that read ‘RIP Football’.
It required legal intervention from the Spanish Football Federation for Monday evening games to be scrapped before this season and had Luis Rubiales, the federation’s president, had his way Friday evening games would have gone as well. However, the judge denied that, providing Tebas with a victory of sorts. But it was not long before he was again railing against the governing body in regards to fixture scheduling.
Last month it was decided the first clásico of the season would move from Saturday 26 October to Wednesday 18 December because of political protests in Catalonia. The change, approved by Barcelona, Real Madrid and the federation, means the game at the Camp Nou will take place at 8pm local time, great for viewers in Spain but less so for those hoping to watch in Asia given the seven-hour time difference.
Hence Tebas’s ire and threat of legal action. He dropped that but remains adamant Spain’s standout fixture must be scheduled with a foreign rather than domestic audience in mind. “Of the two clásicos there are in a season, one should always be so people in Asia can watch without being asleep and the other should always be so people in the US can watch without being asleep,” he says. “It is important to recognise that the followers of Spanish football are not just people who live in Spain. We must also respect the fans who are in Asia and the Americas – they are also contributing because they pay for their TV subscriptions, which in turn allows the clubs to pay big stars and helps turns La Liga into a global product.”
Tebas’s desire to see La Liga’s international standing grow is undeniable. He speaks of it being a “key objective” and the 57-year-old is clearly prepared to become unpopular in order to get as many overseas viewers as possible, which is not a shock given that since he became head of La Liga six years ago he has regularly and spectacularly clashed with Rubiales – most recently over Tebas’s desire to play a La Liga fixture abroad – and on more than one occasion demanded Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain be kicked out of European competition. The Costa Rica-born Spaniard is as fearless as he is brash.
To Tebas’s credit, he has taken a modern and forward-thinking approach to making La Liga more appealing to a global audience, establishing a partnership with Microsoft that means many decisions made by him and his team are, and have been, based on data collected by the tech giant. This has even included the use of sunlight readings to decide where best to base TV cameras inside stadiums for the clearest and sharpest pictures.
There have also been strategies such as allowing people on the Indian subcontinent to watch La Liga content for free on Facebook and streaming live coverage of Segunda Division games on YouTube, with the aim of ‘boosting the brand’ and increasing revenues. Recent forecasts suggest global TV income for Spain’s top two leagues will exceed €2bn (£1.7bn) at the end of this campaign.
That figure is dwarfed by the £9bn that the Premier League is reportedly set to generate from its current three-year broadcast deal and puts into context the challenge Tebas faces to make Spain’s top flight bigger and more lucrative than England’s. He insists he is “not obsessed” with the Premier League, partly because such are the changes in the way people are consuming football content that, long term, La Liga may be better placed to dominate international markets.
“Our cumulative global audience figure is more than 3.2 billion but what that means is hard to say given the concept of an audience is changing,” says Tebas, speaking to the Guardian at the recent Web Summit in Lisbon. “Now it is also about ‘users’ and the minutes they are consuming your content. It could be people who are watching La Liga matches but it could also be people who are watching highlights on another device. This is a growing trend and why, as well as working to grow our audience, we are working towards having more users. I’m convinced in 10 years nobody will be taking about audience figures – instead we’ll be taking about users.”
That is for the future. For now TV audience figures remain relevant and, in that regard, it is a boost to La Liga’s presence in the UK that a recently-signed deal means games from Spain’s top flight will continue to be broadcast there via Premier Sports until the end of the 2021-22 season, as well as on LaLigaTV, a 24-hour channel scheduled to launch on Sky TV early next year.
However, it remains a source of frustration for Tebas that La Liga games which kick off on Saturday afternoons in Spain cannot be broadcast live in the UK because of the longstanding blackout. Asked what he thinks about that policy, the president offers a typically blunt reply: “It’s a mistake”.