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The Future of the Beautiful Game

Gualter Fatia / Getty Images

Want to understand the changing face of football? Look to La Liga…

Back in the day when I first began to report on football, by which I mean about 25 years ago, we all knew what the phrase “Over the Top” meant.

Now, as La Liga seems to be gradually converting itself into something more than a mere guardian and organiser of Spain’s footballing top flight, suddenly the OTT terminology means much more than an overly robust tackle that could well see you receive your marching orders.

In its simplest form OTT is a streaming media service offered directly to viewers on the internet. By by-passing the traditional platforms such as terrestrial, satellite and cable, it retains ownership and total influence to do as it wishes over the distribution of its product.

The times they are most certainly a’changing with La Liga and its combative, “Marmite” leader, Javier Tebas at the forefront of a revolution that is rapidly changing the way we are watching football now and will continue to do so in the future. Effectively what Tebas and the La Liga organisation that he heads have decided is that if it is to fight against the rest to put its product out there around the world then it must effectively convert itself into a technology company responsible for the distribution of its product.

Anton_Ivanov; A.PAES; kivnl / Shutterstock.com
Anton_Ivanov; A.PAES; kivnl / Shutterstock.com

Tebas and La Liga are going beyond the now. They imagine a future where virtual reality glasses, voice activated gadgets like Alexa or bigger live interactions with clubs will be part of the football experience and they are accumulating data to know as much as they can about their clientele.

Tebas is a strange cove and certainly not everyone’s cup of camomile. Up to now he and his extensive team have ploughed their own furrow and battled constantly to keep La Liga at the very top of the world’s footballing hierarchy, something that has constantly pitted it against the Spanish Football federation that its members belong to.

The La Liga boss and Spanish FA chief Luis Rubiales have one major thing in common, namely a mutual detestation of each other. Fundamentally, they disagree on just two things; everything they say and everything they do. Think Tom and Jerry or Itchy and Scratchy in full flight and you get an inkling of the antipathy that exists between them. They understand the future of football in different ways.

In fact, if the success of any large organisation can be gauged by the ability of all its different parts to row seamlessly in the same direction then it’s nothing short of a miracle that the Spanish footballing boat has ever managed to get out of the harbour, never mind rise to the top of the sport’s “greasy pole” for much of the 21st century.

Tebas is certainly the one with the bigger and more adventurous vision. To be fair to him, he has always been an avid technophile and in the constantly changing world of the screening of football all around the world the current La Liga initiative looks to be stealing a march on all of its competitors.

In his early professional days, he was the first one to have a mobile phone - the size of which Ryanair would not now allow you to bring as cabin luggage. He had the first fax machine in his town. Today’s innovations include the collection and careful placement of viewer’s data into a data lake which is charting the changing way we watch football.

Leonard Zhukovsky; mooinblack; Edu del Fresno / Shutterstock.com
Leonard Zhukovsky; mooinblack; Edu del Fresno / Shutterstock.com

The La Liga boss and the Spanish FA chief have one major thing in common - a mutual detestation of each other. Fundamentally, they disagree on just two things - everything they say and everything they do.

“We use it to create a match schedule,” Tebas has explained. “When we put the times of the matches, our artificial intelligence predicts how many people will to go to the stadiums, how many are going to watch on Spanish television, how many are going to watch in different, strategic countries around the world, and we have a margin of error of less than five per cent… Or put another way we can focus on whatever may be of interest to one club or another. The timings of the games we choose with a view to optimise maximum attendance at the stadium, maximum audience on Spanish television and maximum audience in different countries around the world.”

He continued: “What we believe is that the millennial generation watch football a different way but still watch the 90 minutes. They need to interact, a second screen for more information and in fact we are working in the world of OTT with the possibility of watching football with a chat with your friends who are watching the game. They want to enjoy it a different way, in company, with more information, more experiences. The important thing is that we as owners of the content should understand that this is happening and we need to prepare for this transition.”

Tebas and La Liga are going beyond the now. They imagine a future where virtual reality glasses, voice activated gadgets like Alexa or bigger live interactions with clubs will be part of the football experience and they are accumulating data to know as much as they can about their clientele. They already have their own OTT, LaLigaSports TV in which they experiment with less popular sports preparing themselves for a future where TV channels or platforms will not be needed to exploit their broadcasting rights. LaLiga is imagining (and in that way starting to influence) how we will relate to the beautiful game.