MIAMI — Americans are wild about El Clasico. There's no doubt about it. Here in Miami, Saturday's meeting between Real Madrid and Barcelona is on everyone's lips. Signs are everywhere and events are packed. More than 37,000 people paid to get into Hard Rock Stadium on Friday to see each team wave to the stands and play a few small-sided games during training sessions.
Yes, the United States is in love with Real Madrid and Barcelona. But is the country in love with La Liga?
That's the question La Liga president Javier Tebas has to make sure is answered in the affirmative if the Spanish top division is going to continue to grow in the U.S.
"The Clasico is the best expression of Spanish football. In fact, our league is the best league in the world," Tebas said at a breakfast with former Real Madrid forward Fernando Morientes and ex-Barcelona defender Carles Puyol seated to his left. "Today with me are two players who have been rivals on the playing field, even more because of their positions on the field. They're representing the two best clubs that have come out of what may be the best league in the world. But being the best league in the world, we have to keep working because other leagues have grown a lot. They're getting closer and they want to take that spot."
With Barcelona already having an office open in the United States and a Real Madrid counterpart likely to follow, La Liga doesn't have much work to do to make sure fans keep tuning into games, buying shirts or engaging on social networks. But the problem with Real Madrid and Barcelona is that there are only one of each. There are just two Clasico matches during the season.
"In the league, we pay a lot of attention to clubs that aren't Real Madrid or Barcelona. They already have their own brand and market on their own. But we’re taking advantage of this to work together to grow the rest of the clubs," Tebas said. "We’ve got a project called Liga World that we started three and a half years ago that exists to help teams that aren’t Real Madrid or Barcelona to play games outside Spain.
"We’ve tried, for instance, Atletico Madrid played in San Francisco. We’ve had Valencia, Sevilla, more clubs. Also, digitally we’re putting more attention on these clubs above all in the American market. Social networks like Facebook let us geotarget messages and we’re working with our clubs to geotarget messages, especially to the United States."
In a competitive environment like the U.S., where La Liga is not only competing with other soccer leagues like the Premier League and Bundesliga but also with Major League Baseball, the NBA and the NFL for fans' attention, the outreach must go beyond a few Facebook posts or one tour of the country. That's why Tebas is working to make sure the broadcast experience for fans who tune in after seeing a team on tour will live up to their expectations.
"We’re working on making sure those games are broadcasted in the same way as a Real Madrid-Barcelona," he said. "Our goal is a game between Eibar and Osasuna or Malaga has the same broadcast quality as a Real Madrid-Barcelona, and I think that in two years we’ll be there. This year there will be 14 stadiums in the top division with aerial cameras. No other league has that. We’re going to have it in every stadium. This year Real Madrid and Barcelona have 360-degree replay cameras. This year three more teams, Atletico Madrid, Valencia and Sevilla, will add the 360 cameras to their broadcasts. Within two years there will be 10 teams (that have the cameras).
"We want a Barcelona-Espanyol or a Real Madrid-Atletico Madrid to have the same quality as Real Sociedad-Athletic Bilbao, the same. That’s part of our strategy to get the other clubs seen more. There aren’t games that are better or worse, we’re the league. We’re all the same."
The 54-year-old Tebas said he's been pleased to see the growth of TV partner beIN Sports in the United States. When La Liga signed the initial agreement with the company, it was a fledgling entity in the United States and available in very few homes. It's now grown immensely. But beyond the Clasico, the growth may still have to come slowly.
Tabas said that while there are only two Clasico matches each year, the league is working to market derbys between Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid or Barcelona and Espanyol more aggressively making sure start times fall in a good position for strategic international markets, whether they be in the Americas or in Asia.
In Miami, the strength of the league's biggest teams will be on display Saturday with the kickoff set for 8 p.m. ET. Tebas can sit back and enjoy, then get back to work on figuring out how to get those 65,000 people in the stadium to tune in Sunday morning.