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From left, Javier Tebas, the president of Spain's La Liga, and Saburo Kawabuchi, supreme adviser to the Japan Football Association, discuss ways to win global fans on Nov. 8. (Photo by Wataru Ito)
Business

Spanish soccer boss sees green pastures in Asia and online

La Liga's Javier Tebas says his sport must adapt to digital change

TOKYO -- Like all organizations, sports leagues need to adapt to the digital era, the president of Spanish professional soccer said in Tokyo on Wednesday.

In the case of La Liga, as Spain's soccer league is known, online broadcasting could be a ticket to competing with global powerhouses like the English Premier League, Javier Tebas suggested at the Nikkei Global Management Forum.

"We are living in a digital world," Tebas said during a session with Saburo Kawabuchi, a key architect of Japan's professional J. League. "We need to try to adapt to this change. The soccer world needs to adapt to this change."

Broadcasting rights are a major revenue source for La Liga, and Tebas is keen to capitalize on new opportunities in online streaming, cable services and satellite TV. "We need to consider [various] platforms," he said.

"Netflix, Rakuten -- many institutions and enterprises are interested" in securing broadcasting rights, he noted, adding that SoftBank Group, Amazon.com and Facebook are also possible business partners.

On Tebas' watch, the league has been pushing to expand abroad, especially in China. When he took over in 2013, Spain was in the grips of an economic crisis and some clubs were struggling to even pay players. He set about boosting sales of broadcasting rights.

Asia may offer a path to matching the commercial success of the Premier League and the U.S. National Basketball Association. This is why weekend La Liga games are now scheduled much earlier -- 1 p.m. on Saturdays, for instance. This allows Japanese audiences to watch them live in the evening. 

Two Japanese players are currently with Spanish clubs, which also helps, he noted.

"When it comes to growing the industry, we shouldn't stick to a conventional way," Tebas said, though he also stressed that digital is not everything. 

"The Garden" model

Investments in arenas and stadiums are also important to raise team revenues. As their finances improve, Spanish soccer clubs are making such moves.

"Watching in a stadium [as opposed to watching at home] is a totally different experience," he said. Plus, stadiums offer ways to make extra money -- from hosting events like concerts to offering spectators access to VIP rooms.

Kawabuchi, supreme adviser for the Japan Football Association, echoed Tebas' views.

"Madison Square Garden in New York is the best example" of a multifunction facility, Kawabuchi said, recommending that the industry emulate the iconic arena.

Kawabuchi suggested Japan needs to embrace such strategies if it is to reach Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's goal of tripling the sports business by 2025.

Political game changer?

Aside from marketing strategies, the discussion also turned to rumors that FC Barcelona, the world-renowned club, might leave La Liga following the region of Catalonia's push for independence from Spain. Tebas said a lot of false information is circulating and insisted it would "not happen."

"The Catalans are Spanish, and so are the Basque people," he said. "We've had [the Catalan independence issue] before, but we decided to remain part of Spain. Once we have decided, we need to keep the rules and laws.

"La Liga fans and Barcelona fans, please rest assured. Things will stay the same."

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