LaLiga TV’s Sky launch brings Spanish football back to UK screens as Javier Tebas’s vision becomes reality

Dermot Corrigan
The Clasico between Barcelona and Real Madrid remains La Liga's prize asset: Getty

LaLiga TV’s launch this week on Sky is welcome news for British fans of Spanish football, and also a big step in La Liga president Javier Tebas’s plan to transition his organisation from a mere organiser of games into a global content provider.

La Liga is the first football league anywhere to run its own TV channel – with the full production managed in-house, then sold ready-made for broadcast to partners around the world.

The 24/7 channel has been produced for three years at the HQ of long-time Spanish broadcast partners Mediapro in Barcelona – and is already shown direct to viewers in North America, sub-saharan Africa, south-east Asia and Australia.

Monday’s UK launch via Premier Sports on Sky’s pay-TV platform is part of a three-season deal with Premier Sports as La Liga’s exclusive broadcast partner in the UK and Ireland. This should fill in what has been very spotty coverage of Spanish football in Britain since Sky Sports stopped showing games at the end of the 2017/18 season.

“People in the UK have missed Spanish football,” LaLigaTV’s Simon Hanley told the Independent on a visit to its Barcelona studios last month. “They want to see Lionel Messi, Gareth Bale, Eden Hazard… the greatest players and the biggest teams in the world. We want people who are passionate about La Liga to be able to watch the games, and also hear our opinions and analysis. So it’s a great opportunity and welcome news.”

Twenty-six hours of live programming each weekend will include every possible live game from La Liga Santander in full HD. There is also daily studio analysis, news and documentary programming, which Hanley says will cover all 20 clubs equally.

“I think a lot of people came to La Liga for Messi, and Cristiano Ronaldo when he was here,” he says. “But if you stay, and dig a little bit deeper, then you realise La Liga is about much more than just Barcelona and Madrid.”

An advantage of the league also being the international broadcaster is each stadium has a special flash zone for English speaking players to do post-game interviews not shown anywhere else.

“We’ve had Kieran Trippier quite a few times speaking with us after games, and he’s been delighted to express his joy at playing in La Liga,” Hanley says. “Gareth Bale has not said too much yet, but most clubs have a few English speakers – Marc Andre Ter Stegen at Barcelona, Thomas Partey at Atletico too, Martin Odegaard at Real Sociedad.”

La Liga have also dipped into the old Sky pool for their pundits roster – which includes Terry Gibson, Gaizka Mendieta, Albert Ferrer, Nayim, Gus Poyet and ex-Barcelona, Swansea and Brighton player Andrea Orlandi. Former regulars on Sky’s Revista de La Liga show Graham Hunter and Guillem Balague are on board as analysts and commentators.

LaLiga TV is already showing across the globe (LaLiga TV)

Balague will present a monthly ‘Talking Football’ show featuring long interviews with current and former Spanish footballers. First up this month is a chat with ex-Barcelona playmaker Xavi Hernandez from his current home in Qatar. Balague says that LaLiga TV viewers will get more in-depth analysis than is typical in most British football coverage.

“In England recently we’ve started to get more stories, tactics and trying to understand the game,” he told the Independent. “But the biggest stories are always personality and controversy. In Spain we think we know a lot about football, so we try to make it more about how the game has been played. You get deeper interviews, more inside stories, than in England, where they want to run whatever is controversial.”

Controversy is something which LaLigaTV will presumably be keen to avoid. This model allows the organisation to keep a close control of their own product’s quality – all production values, graphics, camera angles and replays can be standardised. The minimum number of cameras at a top flight stadium is 15, while novelties like SkyCam and 360 Replays aim to enhance the viewer experience. A new feature for 2020 is players appearing in studio for interview using a ‘hologram’ technology.

So much control also means La Liga themselves can decide how to deal with controversial incidents during a game. For example, viewers of December’s Clasico at the Camp Nou were not shown why play was stopped early in the half, with images of the yellow inflatable balls thrown onto the pitch by Catalan nationalist protesters withheld and commentators not mentioning what was going on.

That also raises concerns that pundits might go easy on underperforming teams or players who deserve a bollocking – but Barcelona-based Hunter says this is not the case.

“The first thing we were told was don’t bite your tongue, be honest, be accurate, with respect,” Hunter says. “And don’t be biased towards the big clubs all the time. We’re not looking for headlines or controversy – but you watch the ex-players open up when they are actually asked to explain what just happened in a game, based on their own knowledge and experience.”

Such engaging content is important for Tebas’s long-term aim to compete as much with Facebook or Game of Thrones as with the Premier League or the NFL. A key step in that was the hiring of former Netflix senior executive Joris Evers as La Liga’s chief communications officer two years ago.

Another example was the late 2017 launch of LaLigaSportsTV, which broadcasts classic La Liga games alongside action from more than 30 other sports including badminton, weightlifting and basketball for free online. This now has more than 410,000 registered users around the world.

La Liga also has its own sizeable in-house software development team working on its own business intelligence, machine learning and analytics software. Different bespoke programmes are used for tasks as diverse as allowing member clubs to analyse their opponents players and tactics, signalling to the authorities that a game may have been fixed, and even setting kick-off times each week based on historic audience figures and natural light at the stadiums.

Javier Tebas speaking at a conference in Madrid last year (Getty)

“With Tebas it is all vision and La Liga becoming like a tech company,” says Balague. “He has always been interested in this – he had the first fax in his village, and the first mobile phone. He was carrying around this huge suitcase with him. That is why there is this push, this openness to see what can be done.”

In the short term, this means that Sky’s 8.5million UK subscribers get free access to LaLigaTV for the last two weekends of January. First up is a suburban Madrid derby with Leganes hosting Getafe at 8pm on Friday 17, with Trippier’s Atletico Madrid visiting Eibar at 8pm Saturday.

The UK’s baffling 3pm Saturday blackout means Real Madrid v Sevilla must be shown on a delay. Sunday 19 January has five games back to back, starting with Valencia at Mallorca at 12pm UK time, up to Messi’s Barca hosting Granada at 8pm.

Highlights the following weekend include Scottish winger Oliver Burke’s Alaves hosting Santi Cazorla’s Villarreal, and Real Madrid visiting Real Valladolid, where former Bernabeu galactico Ronaldo is now club president.

Following the initial two-week free trial period, LaLiga TV will cost £5.99 per month as a standalone HD channel, or £11.99 per month if bundled with Premier Sports 1 and 2. It will be launched in the Republic of Ireland in January. Customers signing up for either package get a free login for Premier Player to stream LaLigaTV on their phone, tablet or laptop.

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