LaLiga’s strategy against Covid. Part I

November 23, 2020

LaLiga's strategy against Covid. Part I

We analyze LaLiga’s strategy towards Covid and the actions it has taken to minimize the impact of the pandemic and manage a crisis never before experienced by the sports industry. Javier Morente, a member of the chairman’s office of LaLiga, and Patricia Rodriguez, Elche’s CEO, discuss all this in a webinar organized by Johan Cruyff Institute and LaLiga Business School

The following information is part of a webinar organized by Johan Cruyff Institute and LaLiga Business School. Part II will be published soon.

LaLiga has not stopped. The coronavirus forced a two-week suspension of competition in mid-March when the pandemic was declared, but LaLiga did not stop. It took the great players of the sport and their entire environment off the pitch, sent them home following the recommendations of the government and health authorities, and LaLiga barricaded itself in its offices to seek solutions. An organization’s strategic plan and its ability to defend common interests and follow a clear roadmap are measured primarily in difficult times. And there has never been a more complicated time in the history of sport. LaLiga’s business model is a mirror in which many look at themselves, and the organization has proven itself to be up to the task again, providing resources and strategies to minimize the impact of the pandemic. We analyzed the strategy of LaLiga against Covid with Javier Morente, member of the chairman’s office of LaLiga, and Patricia Rodríguez, general manager of Elche CF.

As head of relations with international associations at LaLiga, one of Javier Morente’s tasks is to defend the interests of LaLiga as a domestic competition against the clubs (which are defended by ECA), the players (represented by FIFPro) and against UEFA and FIFA, which watch over their own competitions. In his day to day, he works with the president, Javier Tebas, to “try to minimize any threat that LaLiga may have. We develop all kinds of strategies and, of course, the coronavirus pandemic has been one of the biggest threats that football has had in history,” he says.

Patricia Rodriguez was appointed as the new general manager of Elche CF in June 2019 after her extraordinary period as financial director, first, and then CEO, of Eibar. She already faced a major challenge as the first woman in the history of Spanish football to become general manager of a club. The bar is now even higher, as she leads Elche in its first season as a First Division club. “My responsibility is to lead the club and, my biggest challenge, to manage the uncertainty. From March, with the outbreak of the coronavirus, the scenario changed completely,” says the Basque manager.

The reaction to Covid in the offices of LaLiga with 238 games in the air

Javier Morente: On March 10th, we suspended the competition for a period of two weeks and on the 12th it was suspended until further notice. But it wasn’t until a week later at a UEFA working group session (UEFA created a working group to work with the calendars with LaLiga, the Premier League, UEFA, ECA and European leagues), when we realized it was going to be tremendously complicated to deal with all the competitions that had to be played in such a short period of time. The Euro Cup was due to start on June 1st; national teams were playing in March and June; domestic leagues had to play between 10 and 13 matches, depending on the league; domestic cups had two or three matches pending, semi-finals and finals for most countries; there were also 17 Champions League and 23 Europa League matches to play; and we had the qualifying rounds of the next season’s UEFA competitions starting in July. And we had to put all those matches together so that they could fit into a schedule that was going to be shortened by more than 60%. That was the moment when I was really aware of what we were up against.

“We had to reschedule 238 games in a calendar shortened by more than 60%. That’s when I was really aware of what we were up against” – Javier Morente

Action strategies in times of uncertainty

Javier Morente: Working in uncertainty, we need to find very clear strategies and follow the process, because it is very easy to get lost with the amount of information we have. So LaLiga has been following three strategies since the beginning of the crisis.

  1. Resume the competition: In order to do that, there were five main issues that we had to discuss: the calendar, the permissions of the players that worked with the clubs, the contracts that had to be extended, adjusting the financial fair play rules, and developing the protocols to follow.
  2. Treating all the positives: When we resumed the competition from June 11th to August 23rd, we concentrated on finishing the competition by implementing all the protocols, treating all the positive cases. We only had 10 cases in the 2019-20 season.
  3. Bubble strategy and awareness strategy: The strategy for the 2020-21 season has to be completely different because the situation is also different. With the strategy of what we call ‘the football bubble’, we take care of the training, travel and matches of the players and the clubs; and the awareness strategy is to also take care of the players when they are no longer in the bubble, when they are at home or outside the stadium. We also have strategies to minimize the risks in that specific area.

The biggest concerns at club level

Patricia Rodriguez: The week that the pandemic was declared in March and the competition was suspended, we had many meetings with LaLiga about the situation and the next steps. Now, when I read my notes from those dates, I’m surprised at myself because we didn’t expect to stop for more than two weeks. As for Elche, our main concern was health because we had some employees directly affected by Covid. One of our players tested positive, so we decided to close the club and work remotely. We also had to deal with the financial situation, we furloughed all club employees, negotiated a wage cut with the players, and we tried to manage the debt repayments despite the decrease in income. We also understood that we had some responsibility to service our fans and entertain them while they were at home through content on our social networking channels.

LaLiga's strategy against Covid. Part I

Take care of the health of all those involved in the competition is one of the three mandatory principles clubs have to met * Image: LaLiga.

Complete the season for integrity

Patricia Rodriguez: LaLiga informed us that three mandatory principles had to be met. The first one was to take care of the health of all the people involved in the competition (players, staff and employees who work at the matches); the second one was the integrity of the competition, avoiding any manipulation; and the third one, obviously is the economic situation of the clubs. As for the last principle, we have to say that we are very proud to be the league with the least impact on income, and this will be good for the future because we have not suffered the losses that they have in France or in the Premier League. We have handled the situation over the past and present season better than other clubs.

“LaLiga informed us that three mandatory principles had to be met: take care of the health of all those involved in the competition, the integrity of the competition and the economy of the clubs” – Patricia Rodriguez

Closed-door discussions between LaLiga and the clubs

Javier Morente: It was our responsibility to make sure that the competition was going to end, just like this season, and we held a weekly meeting of our board of directors to discuss the situation as it progressed, and to approve and make decisions. To this end, we appointed a person from each club (20 in the First Division and 22 in the Second Division) responsible for supervising the correct application of the protocol. LaLiga is currently the only league in the world that does not allow the use of locker rooms, or it is very limited. The changing rooms can only be used three minutes before the game and three minutes after for a simple reason: we think that, within the soccer bubble, the biggest source of infection, by far, is the changing rooms. There is no other competition that does the same and these conversations are not easy with the clubs, because the coaches have their own space and the changing rooms are very important for the clubs. We understand that some decisions are difficult, but we’re trying to do what’s best for the competition.

“We are the only competition that limits the use of changing rooms to three minutes before and after the game because we think that within the soccer bubble the biggest source of infection, by far, is the changing rooms” – Javier Morente

LaLiga’s support to clubs

Patricia Rodriguez: We have received the utmost support from LaLiga. Different webinars have been organized to give us a valuable service regarding labor regulations, which have been changing a lot in Spain during these months. They have also advised us on ticketing strategies to compensate our fans and they are giving us opportunities to obtain funding from external financial institutions. In addition to that, we have weekly meetings in which we share our concerns and doubts. Finishing the league remains the great challenge and goal for both LaLiga and the clubs.

LaLiga's strategy against Covid. Part I

LaLiga organizes different webinars to guide clubs during the pandemic * Image:LaLiga.

Drones and statistics in real time to replace the experience of live matches

Javier Morente: The public’s return to the stadiums is an issue we are discussing with the government. But we are trying to find other ways to connect with the fans. We now have drones filming the games, with the permission of the government, police and security teams. We also provide live statistics during the game. For example, now in LaLiga, on some corner kicks, before the player shoots we offer the percentage of balls that go to the near post, the center or the far post. Live data is here to stay, not only in football but in all sports.

“The public’s return to the stadiums is an issue that we are discussing with the government. As an innovation, we are working with drones and offering live data” – Javier Morente
LaLiga's strategy against Covid. Part I

LaLiga provides live statistics during matches * Image: LaLiga.

Patricia Rodriguez: Our strategy is to attract our fans with the help of digitalization. We are offering different content such as videos, photos and showing parts of the stadium that they don’t know. We are also working with LaLiga to negotiate with the government the return of fans to the stadiums. We have a very strange situation now because, in the same country, the Second Division B and non-professional competitions can be played with public, and also other European competitions. I don’t think it makes sense.

The relationship with sponsors in Covid times and ticketing losses

Patricia Rodríguez: At Elche CF, we are a special case because we have been promoted to the First Division, so we are more attractive than in the Second Division, the ‘LaLiga SmartBank’. We haven’t been as harmed as other clubs because there are many companies around Elche, retail companies within the economic ecosystem of Alicante, for example, that have invested in the club, looking to expand their visibility through LaLiga. Being in an international context like the one we have now with the TV rights, being in the First Division and being visible in different countries, is very interesting for this type of sponsors who are focusing their strategy on internationalization and trying to sell their products in other countries, not only in Spain. So, in our case, it has not been as complicated as in other cases.

More content in Part II on:

  • LaLiga management model: economic control and centralization of TV rights
  • The uncertainty of playing in the First or Second Division in financial terms
  • The biggest challenges from now on
  • LaLiga’s digital strategy to innovate in fan engagement
  • New app: players as models of Covid awareness
  • LaLiga’s internationalization strategy
  • The plan to not depend so much on broadcasters

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