Barcelona v Real Madrid: Premier League could lose global audience to La Liga sooner rather than later
Over the past few years, the organisers of Spain’s La Liga have been giving their league a shake to appeal to a global audience. The changes have mostly centred around kick-off times and making sure clubs fill their stadiums in a bid to raise the profile of La Liga and – crucially – to try to bridge the gap in terms of TV rights revenue with the Premier League. And with the scheduling of the latest El Clasico for 3.15pm on Saturday, they may have found their niche.
The Premier League currently schedules what you might describe as its lower profile fixtures for Saturday afternoons: the traditional time for football in England, but an increasingly inconvenient one for the Premier League. 3pm in England is also a nice time for most of the rest of the world – late, but not too late, in the Far East and breakfast time before Saturday starts in earnest in America.
But the low profile of the 3pm kick-offs is a quirk of the British legal system. By law, no live football of any kind can be broadcast on British TV between 2:45pm and 5:15pm on a Saturday afternoon. And so the Premier League games taking place in this timeslot are low in profile – one would imagine – for two reasons. One is because the TV broadcasters, who are paying for the rights to the games, want to broadcast the fixtures that most people are interested in watching. And the other reason would be that since the games aren’t on TV, fans will travel to the stadiums: fans are probably more likely to be tempted to stay in their homes to watch their team if their opponents aren’t high profile, and the game is broadcast live.
Whether or not you agree with the logic, that does seem – more or less – to be the reasoning behind the law in the first place. It is there to protect lower league football clubs against the monopoly of the Premier League: if there’s no Premier League on, go and watch your local team instead, and then watch the late kick off, and then the highlights on Match of the Day.
But that means that the British audience will miss arguably the biggest football game of the season so far – Barcelona v Real Madrid at Camp Nou.
It also means that, globally, La Liga’s biggest game will compete only with the likes of Sunderland v Leicester and Crystal Palace v Southampton: Chelsea play Manchester City before 3pm, and West Ham play Arsenal after 5.
It’s not much of a contest, but in the territories where the Premier League has been able to broadcast its product at 3pm, it has been able to enjoy a large following. Surely most football fans will tune into the Spanish offering instead of the English one this weekend, though. Going forward, if this is always the case, there’s not an awful lot the Premier League can do about it other than lobby for a change in the law: just how well would it go down if they scheduled a title-deciding fixture at a time when audiences in the league’s own country couldn’t watch the game?
The law gives Spain’s La Liga – and all the others – a chance to muscle in on the Premier League’s territory. After all, Saturday at 3pm is a British tradition, not a Spanish one. But if Spain are willing to move the biggest games of their entire season to an untraditional time, it gives them a huge advantage worldwide.
The Premier League probably takes too much for granted these days. They take their fans for granted, even though one of the things that attracts a global audience to the Premier League is the vocal ferocity and the passion of fans of all clubs, not just the big ones. Fans around the world love how every team fills its stadium every week. They love the songs and the chants; the passion. But there’s a real lack of effort on the part of clubs to make sure fans are treated properly.
Without the vociferousness of the fans in England, audiences abroad may drop: the packaging wouldn’t be the same, and over the past few years, the product hasn’t matched that polished packaging anyway. In Spain, they’ve taken action to try to change their own product in order to compete.
Spanish La Liga clubs are now fined if their stadiums have empty seats in the parts of the stands that are picked up by the TV cameras. It’s a law that doesn’t have any real benefit to the clubs themselves in terms of increasing attendances – after all, they could conceivably leave an entire stand empty so long as it wasn’t caught on the TV camera – but it does mean that global audiences see full stadiums with passionate support at all levels of the league: just like in England.
The Premier League was the first to understand the power of the new economy in football, the global economy. But over the past few years, it seems to have become complacent: perhaps looking too far outwards, and with too much focus, to notice the problems for fans in Britain who are actually attending the games.
La Liga doesn’t have that problem – they’ve already realised what their problem is and are attempting to fix it. They’ve tightened up their product, tried to make sure the stadiums are filled, and the next step could be to try to muscle in on the Premier League’s traditional territory: the 3pm kick-off.
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Dan sat down with Mark Gilbert, until recently the Head of Digital Communications at The Football Association. Previous to that he worked at The Sun and News of the World, bringing together a great mix of sports and technology knowledge.