On Saturday, Atletico Madrid clinched the Spanish title with a draw in their final game against Barcelona. The next day, the Spanish relegation battle came to an end, with Real Valladoid and Osasuna going down thanks to final day results. On Sunday night, the Mexican league saw its two-legged final decided in extra time, as Leon added a spring title to their fall title.
La Liga is perhaps the best soccer league in the world. Liga MX is the most watched soccer league in the US. But neither is easily found on English-language television in this country. As the powers that be buy up rights in the growing soccer market, these two leagues represent perhaps the most significant unclaimed territory.
To be fair, La Liga is not technically unclaimed. Bein Sports airs the Spanish league, as it does Serie A and Ligue 1. But Bein is hard to find; I don’t have it, and I imagine those who do are a very small minority. Most cable providers offer it only on premium sports packages. La Liga is the best soccer competition that hasn’t yet been grabbed up by the big three of ESPN, NBC, and Fox. The Premier League is held by NBC until 2016, Fox holds the Champions League through 2018, and the Bundesliga will make its way to Fox in 2015.
Where might La Liga fit into that puzzle? NBCSN might, surprisingly, have the most room for it. Games are played later in the day in Spain than in England, which means overlap with the Premier League wouldn’t be so bad. With streaming and overflow channels already established, NBC could show every game the way they do with the Premier League. ESPN President John Skipper acknowledged that if his network were to get the Premier League in 2016, it would likely need a partner in order to handle all of it. Both ESPN and Fox Sports have significant commitments to college football and basketball on weekend afternoons; this would conflict even more with La Liga’s later kickoffs. If NBCSN wanted to supplement its Premier League coverage, or replace it if bidding doesn’t go their way in 2016, it might do well to look to Spain.
Try as I might, I couldn’t figure out when La Liga’s US television rights are up for bidding again, but I’m willing to bet that there will be interest in prying Spanish soccer from Bein. But the English language rights might be a secondary prize to Spanish. The most watched soccer league in the US isn’t even aired in English. While the Premier League averaged around 400,000 viewers this season, Liga MX gets double that on Univision and Unimas.
But would there be an audience for Liga MX in English? That’s a question which I don’t really have an answer to. ESPN2 has shown a few matches here and there, and as best as I can find, viewership has been significantly below that of MLS. This story notes games in 2013 drawing audiences of 41,000 and 81,000, which isn’t very good at all for ESPN. The small audiences may be attributable to the sporadic nature of coverage (recall how adamant MLS was about getting not just games every weekend, but fixed time slots), but it seems doubtful that Mexican soccer will be a huge English-language draw. Perhaps, however Liga MX could still be a viable property for NBCSN or Fox Sports. These networks often fill weekend prime-time slots with motorcross and off-shoot MMA. FS2 especially is in need of anything capable of grabbing an audience.
Demographic changes are a significant driver for the increase in soccer’s US popularity. Soccer is the #1 sport among Hispanics. Doesn’t it make sense, then, for networks to invest in the soccer that Hispanics watch the most?