American professional sports leagues have long played regular-season games abroad to expand their international fan bases: Major League Baseball games in Tokyo, N.B.A. games in London, and N.F.L. games in Toronto and Mexico City. For decades, European soccer leagues — steeped in a century of tradition and long wary of moves that even appear to put commercial interests above competitive ones — have declined to do the same. Until now.
La Liga, Spain’s top soccer circuit, will become the first European league to stage a regular-season match in the United States. The game most likely will be played in Miami, and possibly as soon as this winter.
“The big American leagues are playing matches all over the world, so why would La Liga not play a match in the United States?” Javier Tebas, the president of La Liga, said in an interview.
The match, which will be the first of what could be more than a dozen such games, involving some of the biggest names in European soccer, is part of a 15-year agreement La Liga signed with Relevent Sports to expand Spanish soccer’s presence in the United States. Relevant is best known for putting on the International Champions Cup, a series of high-profile summer exhibitions featuring top European clubs. Three of La Liga’s biggest draws — Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atlético Madrid — played in this year’s I.C.C.
Neither La Liga nor Relevent would disclose which teams were in talks to come to the United States, but they acknowledged that La Liga’s most popular clubs would have to take part for the venture to be a success. “I think you might have heard very much of one of the teams,” Stephen Ross, the owner of Relevent, said in a hint about the debut match. “One of the bigger teams.”
The location of the game has not been set, but Ross laughed when asked if Miami was the logical choice — partly because of its favorable winter weather and large Latino population, but also because Ross owns both the N.F.L.’s Miami Dolphins and their Hard Rock Stadium. “You think?” he responded. “I can’t imagine why.”The match, like all soccer games in the United States involving foreign teams, must be sanctioned by the United States Soccer Federation, and La Liga still must navigate the prickly logistics of holding a match abroad, such as the revenue split between the clubs and which team will surrender one of its home matches. Although La Liga and Relevant would like to have the match in the United States this season, it may not happen until 2019.
Practical concerns like travel and scheduling have long limited foreign teams’ forays outside their borders to participate in exhibition tours and preseason cup finals. The Italian Super Cup, for example, was contested in Washington in 1993 and in New Jersey in 2003, and the French Super Cup was played at Red Bull Arena in New Jersey in 2012. On Sunday, Barcelona defeated Sevilla in Morocco in the first Spanish Super Cup finalplayed outside Spain.
The agreement between La Liga and Relevant goes far beyond just matches, though. Relevant also will begin selling La Liga’s broadcast rights in the United States and Canada when the league’s agreements expire in 2020. La Liga matches are currently shown on beIN Sports. The deal also includes merchandising and signing commercial agreements with American companies, creating digital content, social media strategy, and academy and youth soccer initiatives.
The overarching goal, Relevant officials and Tebas said, is for all of these things to increase La Liga’s audience in the United States, and thus increase the value of its media rights. The United States “is a part of the world where sport is big business, and we want to be part of it,” Tebas said.
The partnership is a joint venture that will take the form of a new company: La Liga North America. It will be controlled by five board members, three representing Relevant and two representing La Liga. Besides Ross and Tebas, the board includes Daniel Sillman, Relevent’s chief executive, who negotiated the deal; Boris Gartner, a former Univision and Televisa executive hired by Relevant to run the day-to-day operations; and Óscar Mayo, La Liga’s head of international development.
“This joint venture, this new company, is effectively the league office for La Liga,” in North America, Sillman said. “The people that were in the La Liga America office and Canada will now report to Boris.”
The deal is the strongest sign yet of how much European leagues covet a piece of the American soccer market. Other leagues (the Bundesliga) and several prominent teams (Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Paris St.-Germain) either have or plan to open offices in New York. Others regularly hold camps and tours in the United States, and there are the numerous academies affiliated with European clubs scattered across the country. But no league has gone as far as holding a league match here.
European soccer’s governing body, UEFA, and others will be watching. Success by La Liga could open the door to more matches in the United States, including, potentially, important ones like the Champions League final.