News How La Liga is building bridges with Saudi Arabia and regional partners

DUBAI: On and off the pitch, La Liga’s ties with Saudi Arabian football are growing.

At the start of March, the La Liga FC Futures U14 tournament was held at the Mahd Sports Academy in Riyadh and won by Spanish club Villarreal.

The competition had been organized in partnership with the Kingdom’s Ministry of Sports and saw 12 teams taking part, including eight EA Sports La Liga teams — Barcelona, Cadiz, Atletico Madrid, Sevilla, Villarreal, Real Betis and Osasuna — as well AS Roma from Italy, Portugal’s SL Benfica, Olympique de Marseille ofFrance and Saudi Arabia’s own Mahd Academy.

Just last week, Barcelona-based Espanyol became the latest Spanish club to welcome a delegation of the Saudi Future Falcons program, with the team from the Kingdom beating the La Liga reserve team 3-2 at Dani Jarque Sports City.

There have been several other collaborations and Maite Ventura, La Liga managing director for the Middle East and North Africa, says more projects are set to come to fruition in the coming months and years — all part of La Liga’s mission to grow its brand.

“Our goal in the case of Saudi is about understanding that the popularity of La Liga and the popularity of football in Saudi is huge,” Ventura told Arab News at La Liga’s headquarters in Dubai. “I think more than 80 percent of the population follows football, so we wanted to be there. It’s one of the main countries in the region, so for us was very important to be there.

“We not only want to be there with a small project,” she added. “We have many different projects there, with the General Entertainment Authority, with the Ministry of Sports, and (recently) we were celebrating FC Futures in Riyadh, which Villarreal won. We we want to know the countries in which we have fans of La Liga.”

Off the pitch, other ventures include the opening of themed bar and restaurant LaLiga TwentyNine and the world’s largest football museum, Legends, both in Riyadh in collaboration with Saudi events company SELA and the GEA.

“So, this is our mission there, it’s about connecting with all of the fans, engaging with the main institutions there,” said Ventura. “We want to be present there, and we don’t want to be there just doing FC Futures, we want to be there for a long time, and we want to be there for our fans.”

When La Liga’s office in Dubai opened in 2014, it became its first ever outside Madrid, with an urgent brief to spread the Spanish league’s brand.

“Our president, Javier Tebas, understood that the limit was the population in Spain, so the only way to keep growing was to go beyond our borders.”

Dubai was seen as the ideal strategic location from which the operation would be carried out in the rest of the region.

“This is not only the 10-year anniversary of the Dubai office, but (of) the international expansion strategy,” said Ventura. “It’s been a long journey, but actually working in the MENA region, where football is the number one sport and where La Liga is the most consumed competition, it’s a pleasure.”

Regionally, Real Madrid and Barcelona have enjoyed huge support for decades in the Middle East, while others like Atletico Madrid, Athletic Bilbao and Valencia have accumulated big followings as well. La Liga’s mission is not just to promote its collective brand, but the individual clubs as well among Arabic-speaking audiences.

“We are doing this in different areas” said Ventura. “From a data perspective, we are working with around 12 clubs from La Liga, we are managing their Arabic social media accounts, we are putting weekly content plan for them to be connecting with their own fans.

“The clubs have understood as well that their fans are not only in Spain, in Valencia or Sevilla or Vigo, but they are in Cairo, Dubai or Jeddah,” she said. “So, this clicked in their heads, and in the last four to five years, the clubs have changed their strategy to go abroad and to connect with their fans. For us, we started with just three people back in 2013. And, right now, we are almost 20 people working only for the MENA region in eight different countries.”

Alongside its strategic projects in Saudi Arabia, La Liga also has representatives working in Qatar, Morocco, Egypt and Iraq.

“Right now we have three people fully based in Baghdad, because we have a very interesting project with the football association there,” said Ventura. “In at the end, our way of doing this is always to be on the ground, physically here, understanding who our fans are, how they consume our product, how they like it, and this allows us to understand and to have this market intelligence and to go to the clubs to let them understand how this works.

“Being in Morocco is not the same as being in Dubai or Baghdad, for example. Our mission is basically to increase the brand value and the value of the TV rights to reach other audiences, other profiles, and of course, to generate business opportunity for La Liga and the clubs.”

In 2022, La Liga and Dubai-based media multinational Galaxy Racer signed a 15-year joint venture to promote the league’s brand in the MENA region and Indian subcontinent.

“We are totally convinced that (for La Liga) to penetrate any market, we need to go hand-in-hand with a partner. It doesn’t matter if it’s a local authority, football federation, local league or a club. We are here to connect with the fans, to connect with the people that like football in each of the countries. So, it’s not like we are in Dubai, and we are managing everything from here. In the case of Iraq, we have a strategic agreement with the football association there. We are working with them to transform the local league, the Iraqi Stars League.”

The highest number of users from the region registered on La Liga’s app comes from Iraq, Ventura revealed, and technology and artificial intelligence are ways through which Spanish clubs will be reaching out to fans, as well as, in the cases of Sevilla and Deportivo Alaves to name two, to gain an advantage in the fields of scouting and recruitment of players.

“We (La Liga) have been working very hard in strengthening the brand of each of the clubs,” Ventura said. “Because the clubs are not just depending on their players — if one player leaves, the club has to keep being strong. So, of course, these are very important lessons that we have been working on now over the last 10 years. First it was international strategy, they understood this, and right now for example, they are working a lot in technology, and definitely AI is going to play a key role in La Liga, not only in this region, but worldwide in the coming years.

“Each of the clubs have their own approach,” said Ventura. “Some of them, they have very strong grassroots systems. Some of them are in involving themselves a lot in technology. Each of them are specializing in (ways) to enter into the market. It’s not the same from one club to another, and they understood this in the right way.”

Ventura expects more partnerships to be signed in 2024 and beyond.

“Last year, it was very important because we partnered with a Galaxy Racer,” she said. “In the MENA region, 50 percent of the population is less than 30 years old. We are very focused on connecting with the youngest generations, Millennials and Gen Z population mainly. So, that is why, from this season, we have started to produce a lot of local content. This means that here we are creating content in Arabic for our Arab fans. We have a very strong strategy right now. We just launched the first Arabic podcast from La Liga, it is called ‘Vamos La Liga’.”

She continued: “We were expecting big numbers, but the the feedback has been amazing. We had more than five million views on the second episode that was with (renowned journalist) Achraf Ben Ayad.”

Ventura says the episode was one of the most consumed pieces of content ever produced by La Liga’s global accounts.

“The experience has been amazing, and we will keep increasing the (amount) of local content, and we are working with a lot of content creators. We will have very big names coming to this podcast very soon,” she added. “We are very focused on the production of local content, and by that I mean everything will be in Arabic, and with people from the region. So the experience has been great.

“We are also doing documentaries, we are producing other type of programmes and everything will be rolled out in the coming months so it’s very exciting.”

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