By Frank Pingue
(Reuters) – Barcelona’s decision to back out of next month’s La Liga match against Girona in Miami highlights the differences that epitomise the European and American models of sport, according to sports industry analysts.
The Spanish league applied in September to move the Jan. 26 game to Florida from Catalonia but met opposition from various governing bodies who feel official matches must be held within the territory of the respective member association.
Spencer Harris, an assistant professor of sport management at University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, had a simple explanation for the protracted saga.
“In the U.S. context, commercialisation is firmly understood and accepted whereas the same unadulterated tactics in Europe —whilst (they) may be desired by some — are more commonly frowned upon,” Harris, who teaches a course called Managing Soccer: Global & Local Perspectives, told Reuters.
While many of soccer’s glamour clubs have played lucrative pre-season friendlies on U.S. soil to build their brand, staging a competitive match abroad presents different challenges.
La Liga, Spain’s top soccer division and home to some of the world’s best players, signed a 15-year agreement with entertainment company Relevent Sports in August to play one league match per campaign in the United States.
But the proposal was met with widespread criticism from players and clubs in Spain and also faces opposition from the Spanish football federation and the sport’s world and European governing bodies, FIFA and UEFA.
“FIFA are all about commercialisation of the game and all about growing wealth and remaining the dominant force in the global sports landscape,” said Harris.
“But for FIFA, this is about politics and about defending the territorial rights of the associations. Because if they don’t do that, chaos could ensue very quickly.”
One source close to the negotiations said the match had been considered an excellent opportunity for Barcelona to expand their international brand while giving a boost to lesser-known Girona in the relatively untapped U.S. soccer market.
A successful staging of the game is also a key initiative for La Liga president Javier Tebas, a vocal proponent of expanding the league’s reach into North America.
Despite the setback, the source said there is too much interest from U.S. fans for the game not to happen eventually — likely next year — and noted that 50,000 people signed a petition three weeks ago saying they wanted the game in Miami.
Last month, La Liga filed a lawsuit against the Spanish soccer federation, which turned down its application to have the game moved and whose president has protested loudly about the idea.
It is a far cry from U.S.-based leagues like the National Football League (NFL) and National Basketball Association (NBA), who routinely send teams overseas for regular-season games.
“There is a lot more involved in this than say an NFL or an NBA team trying to play in Europe,” said Bob Dorfman, a sports marketing expert at Baker Street Advertising in San Francisco.
“It’s more complicated because you’ve got the Spanish football association and they are the governing body so it’s not as easy as just the NFL deciding to play a game overseas where they control their own destiny.”
La Liga has pledged to persevere with a long-term strategy of taking games outside Spain, saying that Barca’s withdrawal did not affect agreement with Relevent to promote Spanish football in North America.
“It really should be a La Liga decision. If they feel this is good for their team and good for their brand then they should be able to do it,” David Ridpath, associate professor of sports management at Ohio University, told Reuters.
“But any time you have layers upon layers of governance there is going to be somebody there who, if they are able to prevent it, will likely throw a monkey wrench in it.”
(Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Additional reporting by Rory Carroll in Los Angeles; Editing by Ian Chadband)