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Liga MX is in the TV rights dark ages and that needs to change

While the league continues to make strides in many areas, it can do much better with the distribution of television rights.

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Pachuca v Pumas UNAM - Torneo Clausura 2018 Liga MX Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images

Liga MX is the dominant soccer power in North America. This is an inarguable fact due to its supremacy in both its record in CONCACAF Champions League play and it being the most widely watched league in North America.

But Liga MX is at a crossroads, where it will need to look inwards at what kind of league it wants to be and take steps toward achieving that goal. If it’s content to be a regional power, it can probably stay the course with its current model. If it has global ambitions, it can take steps now that will help the league reach that goal.

Tigres UANL v America - Playoffs Torneo Apertura 2017 Liga MX
André-Pierre Gignac is one of the best players in Liga MX and could be a television draw in his native France.
Photo by Carlos Cuin/Jam Media/Getty Images

One of the greatest measures of success of a league is its television audience. The leagues that are considered the top four in the world - the English Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, Italy’s Serie A, and Germany’s Bundesliga - all have mammoth television deals that have their games broadcast to every corner of the globe.

For these four leagues, the television deals all run through a central league, with profits doled out to the clubs. The English Premier League is arguably one of the richest leagues in the world. According to this article in Total Sportek, the EPL raked in £8.5 billion (€9.59 billion) in television money globally, with £5.136 billion (€5.82 billion) coming from domestic rights and the balance from international rights. The money from the international television rights is split evenly between the 20 teams, while the domestic money is split between the teams the following way:

All totaled, league winners Chelsea wound up with £153.2 million (€172.77 million) while last place Sunderland still got £99.9 million (€111.65 million) on their way down to the Championship.

2018 FA Cup Football 3rd Round Norwich City v Chelsea Jan 6th
Chelsea was able to rake in over £150 million in television revenue thanks in part to the English Premier League being broadcast on six continents.
Photo by Shaun Brooks/Action Plus via Getty Images

Spain’s La Liga is another wealthy league, and their structure is similar to that of their English counterparts with some differences. This Total Sportek article details Spain’s new €2.65 billion (£2.35 billion) deal, breaking it down as follows:

While Barcelona and Real Madrid still make the lion’s share of the profits (and let’s be realistic - they’re largely the reason the television deals are worth so much money), teams further down the table still make considerable sums of money. Las Palmas was estimated to be the lowest earning club in La Liga and they still walked away with €62 million (£54.98 million).

Real Madrid v Barcelona - La Liga
Players like Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi help La Liga garner television contracts that pump billions into the league.
Photo by Angel Martinez/Real Madrid via Getty Images

Liga MX on the other hand is completely decentralized. Each team makes its own television deals both domestically and internationally. The teams negotiate deals with channels, who in turn broadcast the matches of those teams. This is why for instance Xolos home games only used to appear on Azteca America while most other matches were shown on Univision - Tijuana had negotiated their broadcast rights in the United States with Azteca before taking a better deal with Univision in 2017. This also explains why for instance Xolos home games are always at 7:00 PM Pacific on Friday and Pumas home games are always at 12:00 PM Central on Sunday.

It helps to understand also that some clubs are owned by Mexican television companies. Club América is owned by Grupo Televisa, which also owns Televisa Deportes Network and partners with Univision Deportes Network in the United States. Monarcas Morelia and Atlas are owned by Grupo Salinas, which also owns TV Azteca (as well as Azteca America in the United States). This puts them in direct competition with Club América and Grupo Televisa.

'Vargas Llosa: Cultura, Ideas Y Libertad' Seminar in Madrid - Day 2
Ricardo Salinas heads Grupo Salinas, which owns both Monarcas Morelia and Atlas as well as TV Azteca in Mexico and Azteca America in the United States.
Photo by Carlos R. Alvarez/WireImage

Grupo Pachuca owns and operates Pachuca and León (as well as Mineros de Zacatecas in the Ascenso MX) and has its own television network as well - Tuzos TV. Carlos Slim’s América Móvil telecommunications company owned a 30% stake in Grupo Pachuca until September 6, 2017 when it sold the stake (but retained “certain broadcasting rights... that will allow us to continue to develop sports content on our different platforms.” While Pumas is owned and operated by Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (the Mexican university in Mexico City), the chairman of the board from 2001 through 2004 was Arturo Elías Ayub, who is married to Slim’s daughter Johanna and is on the board of directors for Grupo Carso (Slim’s conglomerate under which Telmex resides).

Chivas tried starting their own television enterprise - Chivas TV, opting to have their home games streamed through this platform only in the middle of 2016. Since many were unwilling to pay for this service, Chivas returned to over the air and cable broadcasts the following year.

Jorge Vergara and Chivas tried selling a subscription-based streaming service to watch games.
Photo credit should read ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP/Getty Images

Still, there is plenty of money to be made off of Liga MX television rights. It’s no secret that Liga MX matches are the most widely watched matches in the United States, outperforming both the European leagues as well as Major League Soccer (the United States’ domestic league). The clubs’ rights deals in the US are estimated to have a combined worth of $110 million per year, and as norteamericanos’ interest in soccer grows, Liga MX is in a unique position to capitalize on this.

In a recent interview with Bloomberg Business of Sports, Octagon Senior Vice President Dan Cohen named Liga MX as one of the most undervalued in terms of media rights. Talking to hosts Michael Barr and Scott Soshnick, Cohen said “I am extremely bullish on Liga MX. I think it’s probably the most undervalued property in all of global sports - not even just in the US,” citing a conjunction of factors that have contributed to the league’s success in the United States.

“It’s not just about the value of... media rights. It’s economics. It’s GDP. It’s demographics. It’s immigration. It’s technology shifts. It’s consumption. So you’re tying in all of these different factors to try and help a league figure out how much it’s worth or help a broadcaster figure out ‘how much should I buy it for?’ Liga MX is a great example of that.”

Cohen continued, “There’s currently 35 million Mexican-Americans living in the US. That number is expected to double by 2032. Traditionally, as you assimilate you still (have) that first- and second-generation still holds on to that home culture. That home team affinity. Octagon’s done a lot of ‘passion drivers’ - research on this. About fan affinity. About what drives the passion of a fan. From and international perspective, from an immigrant perspective, it’s still that home team. And so I think that there’s a lot of opportunity that still hasn’t been tapped into for Liga MX.”

Even if the teams still negotiate their individual rights deals in the United States and Mexico, this leaves the entire rest of the world as a potential market to watch. There are players from every CONMEBOL nation except Venezuela and five CONCACAF nations (United States, Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Honduras), and while most league matches are already broadcast live in all Central American countries except Belize and one match a week (usually the 8:06 PM Eastern match on Saturdays) is broadcast to select nations in the Caribbean, Central, and South America via FOX Sports properties, it would make sense to sell rights to all Liga MX matches in as many countries as possible.

Rights could also be sold to the soccer-crazed countries in Europe, Africa, and Asia as well, especially ones with players in Liga MX. Pachuca has already started having their matches broadcast in Japan thanks to the signing of Keisuke Honda.

Pachuca v Pumas UNAM - Torneo Clausura 2018 Liga MX
Pachuca’s Keisuke Honda is one of the most widely recognized players in the world.
Photo by Jaime Lopez/Jam Media/Getty Images

There is some good news for people hoping to catch live matches outside of the United States and Mexico. Streaming services have started to help bridge the gap. Streaming service Fanatiz has rights to stream games to every country except the United States and Mexico.

If they are able to broadcast matches into new markets outside of the Western Hemisphere, Liga MX would do itself well to also look to broadcast matches in languages other than Spanish. There’s a huge demand for English in the United States, but French and Japanese would be considered strong contenders as well since there are already players in Liga MX from nations where these languages are primary or widely spoken.

The league itself could package the games and sell them, divvying up the proceeds from the sale of the rights to the teams - either equally or on some sliding scale. This would require some deft negotiating between the league and the owners, but ultimately there seems like there is money to be made on this and the clubs would be better off working together to maximize revenue for everyone involved.

In order for that to happen, the clubs (and the media conglomerates that run some of them) would need to cede some of the control of the negotiating process as well as some of the proceeds over to the league. As a whole, Liga MX would have much more bargaining power than any individual club would. This solidarity would only increase the value of any package sold, but it will only happen if the owners can adopt a less feudal system for the greater good.