After years of seeing meaningful games from our own major sports shipped abroad by the greedy leagues that control them, U.S. sports fans are about to find themselves on the opposite side of that transaction. Thanks to a new marketing deal, Spain’s La Liga will play a regular season match stateside, possibly starting as soon as this year. So ... hooray?
Today’s deal, struct between La Liga and Relevant, a sports/media/entertainment marketing company founded by Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, creates a wide-ranging partnership between the two parties for a span of 15 years. Relevant is the company that runs the International Champions Cup, the tournament of preseason friendlies that brings all those big European clubs over here to trudge around in the hot July sun every summer, and it was from the connections Relevant and La Liga made while bringing last year’s bootleg El Clásico to Miami that the current agreement was born. The two groups have combined to form a new entity, called LaLiga North America, that will handle all of La Liga’s business dealings in the U.S. and Canada, including negotiating new TV rights deals.
The big money for Relevant and La Liga will be found in those TV rights deals, but the most glitzy aspect—and main point of contention—is obviously the regular season game that is to be played in the U.S. Spanish paper El País reports that this match will probably involve one of either Barcelona or Real Madrid (though, crucially, not both), will probably take place in Miami, in light of Ross’s involvement, and that the plan is to make the first game happen as soon as possible, which could mean a soon as this upcoming season.
The planned stateside match would be the first but not the last of its kind. As La Liga president Javier Tebas said when announcing today’s deal, “It is among our short- or medium-term objectives to bring a game of the Spanish League every year to the United States.”
As an American soccer fan looking at this from a purely self-interested point of view, this seems like a good thing. At least one time, and probably eventually once a year, Americans will be able to see some of the very best soccer players in the world play in a match that matters without having to leave the country. That is incredibly cool on its face—not because of Ross’s phony posturing that he did the deal so that the match will serve as “the next giant leap in growing soccer’s popularity in North America,” but in the match’s own right. The “growing the game” justification for playing league games abroad doesn’t really seem like it works too well in practice, as the NFL’s gimmicky annual London games attest, and the best way for La Liga to help “grow the game” would be to make it easier rather than harder for Americans to follow the league the way most fans do: on TV. But the match doesn’t have to have any grand importance to the greater American soccer world for it to still be pretty tight that I might be able to see Lionel Messi whip up on Levante in a few months by flying to Miami.
Taking a step back from my limited perspective as an American wanting to see the best possible soccer games in person, this deal is pretty clearly bad. It is yet another example of the erosion of the ties between sports teams and the local communities from which these beloved and deeply entrenched institutions emerged, of the growing sense that the only thing that matters in sports and in life is profit maximization. That these ties between team and community are already so tattered in American sports as to be almost non-existent—so much so that it’s not even a major scandal when a team packs up and leaves its home city if the townspeople don’t pony up for the team owner’s extortionate stadium financing demands—is depressing enough. That the American-style vision of sports teams as vehicles solely for personal enrichment at the total discretion of and benefit to their owners seems to be infecting the more community-minded European soccer model is even worse. “If the NBA or the NFL play games outside their environment or their countries,” Tebas remarked today, “why shouldn’t the Spanish League?” Because the NBA and the NFL suck, Javier, that’s why, and the sanctity of the bond between the diehard local fans who attend every match in person and the clubs they love and support shouldn’t be desecrated just so the owners can get just a little richer.
In a vacuum, moving a single game from Spain to the U.S. maybe isn’t the worst thing that could happen, and if the proceeds are shared evenly between all of La Liga’s clubs in a way that makes the teams outside the big two more financially stable and thus competitive on the pitch, it could even be good. But we all know this is just the start. It’s this kind of shit that makes it easier to realize terrible ideas like the formation of a European Super League, and the elimination of promotion and relegation, and the cheapening of the Champions League by protecting the rich teams at all costs (a proposal posed by one of Relevant’s very own dumbasses), and the addition of a foreign team to another country’s domestic league. It may be cool for me personally that it will now be easier for me to watch Barcelona or Real Madrid play an important game live in the flesh, but the easier it becomes for me to watch a meaningful match the less meaningful any of the matches and the competitions and the sport itself become, until all that’s left are colors on a jersey and money in a bank.