For LaLiga, El Clásico could best be described as the Spanish top-tier soccer leagues “Super Bowl,” according to Boris Gartner, the LaLiga North America CEO.
The twice-a-season league clash between long-time rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid is LaLiga’s signature match — and Gartner and his team’s most significant opportunity to grow LaLiga, its clubs and its players throughout North America.
There are some new wrinkles in that equation as well. While the first El Clásico of the 2020-2021 season comes while the pandemic persists across the globe — limiting what can be done to connect with fans around the match — it also presents one of the biggest opportunities for LaLiga North America since the 15-year joint-venture was started between the league and Relevent Sports Group to grow Spanish soccer in 2018.
Sergiño Dest, a 19-year-old defender for Barcelona, will become the first-ever American soccer player to start and play in the famed match.
“As more Americans are playing in LaLiga, when Barcelona or Real Madrid are recruiting them and when they’re starting in big matches, you’re going to build that narrative,” Gartner said. “You’ll have a connection with fans that go beyond just the ones that they already have with the clubs or with the league, and that gives us a tremendous opportunity to tell that story and position the league around it.”
Gartner pointed to the Bundesliga’s success in the U.S. in recent years, which has been strengthened by American-born players like Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna having success in the German league.
“Separate from Bayern Munich, who have had all of this success, have played in the U.S. in the International Champions Cup and having an office here, there was not another connection point between Bundesliga clubs and the American audience,” he said. “But the fact that you have all of these players go and have success, it creates that with the regular fan — they immediately identify with the American development narrative, and Bundesliga has built that narrative in a very smart way.”
LaLiga North America has helped cultivate that sort of connection for Mexican soccer fans, thanks to the lineage of national team players who have starred in Spain such as Mexican national team captain and Real Betis midfielder Andres Guardado and Diego Lainez, the 20-year-old forward viewed by many as the future of Mexican soccer who also plays for Betis.
That has been aided by a content push coming out of LaLiga North America’s Mexico-based studio and the more than 14 weekly digital shows it produces in English and Spanish.
That is also usually supplemented by some in-person events to mirror this match’s gravitas, which is currently difficult to hold due to the pandemic.
Gartner said LaLiga North America has looked to supplement that with small-scale in-person events — they will hold a small, socially distanced event in New York City alongside the match. That also means pivoting some of that virtually, where it has been hosting fans on their computers to watch matches with LaLiga legends.
There are also other opportunities to try to make this match bigger, ranging from social media collaborations with the Chicago Bears and Miami Dolphins to hosting U.S soccer-focused editions of its shows, such as one with U.S. women’s national team star Allie Long.
But while LaLiga North America will look to continue to build out opportunities for soccer fans to connect with the league, the elevation of a player like Dest can take that to potentially the next level.
“To take an operation that we have in place that is humming along and working perfectly to use it around this match was always going to be a special situation,” Gartner said. “With even more people who will be glued to their screen with Dest, it’s kind of like we’ve been preparing for this moment for the last two years.”