Exposure and investment the goals as French soccer embraces USA
By Simon Ward
The LFP, the French professional soccer league, is looking to put itself on a similar pedestal in USA to other European leagues, and potentially attract new investment for its clubs, with its pre-season tournament in Washington D.C. this summer, but has no plans to stage regular-season games overseas at this time.
Last week, the league announced plans for matches involving prominent top-tier Ligue 1 clubs Marseille, Bordeaux, Saint-Etienne and Montpellier, to take place at Audi Field (pictured), the home of Major League Soccer team D.C. United, on 18 and 21 July.
The event is being sponsored by Electronic Arts, the maker of the popular Fifa video game, while Elevate Sports Ventures, the US sports and entertainment consulting firm, has been brought in to handle North American media rights, sponsorship and ticket sales.
It is no coincidence that two of the clubs involved, Marseille and Bordeaux, have US owners, in Frank McCourt and hedge fund GACP respectively, and the French league is hoping such events will help it to close the gap on England’s Premier League and Spain’s LaLiga in terms of recognition stateside.
In an interview with Sportcal, Olivier Jaubert, the commercial and marketing director of the LFP, said of the Washington trip: “The rationale is Ligue 1 has a lack of exposure in USA, and, in international development, it is important to have a profile.”
He added that the league was looking to stage events in the country for at least the next three years, and is confident that the inaugural edition will prove to be a success, stating: “I would say just the coverage of the announcement shows the interest of the media. We know there is interest from the fans as the ticket sales have already started.”
Jaubert justified the choice of Washington D.C. on the grounds that it is “a real soccer city,” but one that has had “less exposure to international clubs than other places in USA.”
USA is one of three target markets for the LFP in its international development strategy, the others being China and India.
Jaubert cited the growth in the consumption and popularity of soccer in USA, and the fact that it will co-host the 2026 World Cup with Canada and Mexico, saying: “It is key to be there as a strong player.”
The US market also presents opportunities in terms of new finance for French soccer, with Jaubert saying: “On one side we are meeting some potential investors because we think there is a lot of interest in French clubs.”
He highlighted the fact that the teams benefit from strong academy structures, stadiums built or redeveloped for the 2016 European Championships, and lucrative new TV rights contracts that come into effect in 2020.
Jaubert said: “We are very open to new investors. At the same time we want to expose our brand. We are working on most of the pillars to close the gap on the other leagues.”
European clubs are regular visitors to USA, especially for pre-season matches in events like the International Champions Cup, and LaLiga went a step further last year when it announced plans for a regular-season game between Girona and Barcelona to take place in Miami this January.
However, the proposal was dropped in the face of opposition from the RFEF, the Spanish football federation, and Fifa, among others, and Jaubert does not see the LFP going down the same road, albeit the annual Trophée des Champions, contested by the winners of Ligue 1 and the Coupe de France, has been held outside France every year since 2009.
Host countries for that match have included Canada, Tunisia, Morocco, USA, Gabon, China and Austria.
Jaubert said: "We have one official match we can take from country to country, and that is the Trophée des Champions. I think at this point we don't [have plans for overseas Ligue 1 games]."
The 2019 Trophée des Champions between runaway league champions Paris Saint-Germain and cup winners Stade Rennais will take place in Shenzhen in China on 3 August.
The 2014 and 2018 editions were also held in China, in Beijing and Shenzhen respectively.
This year’s match will be preceded by the International Super Cup, a pre-season tournament in involving the two French clubs, Italy’s Inter Milan and Espanyol of Spain, and comprising games in Macau and Suzhhou between 27 and 30 July.
The event is being organised under a six-year agreement between Lagardère Sports, the sports marketing agency of the France-based media giant, and Kaisa Group, a Chinese venue operator.
The LFP has had a permanent presence in China since opening an office, in partnership with the French Football Federation, in Beijing in February 2017, and Jaubert said there is also "strong interest at government level."
The league's three-pronged strategy in the country is based on increased TV exposure, staging of events and player development and academies.
Ligue 1 matches are presently shown in China by CCTV-5, the sports channel of the state broadcaster, and PPTV, the online streaming service owned by electronics retailer Suning.
The importance of the market is shown by the fact that the LFP has plans to introduce a permanent early Sunday afternoon kick-off slot in the rights cycle starting in 2020-21 after moving two Ligue 1 games to 1pm in the past year, a favourable time for Chinese viewers.
Jaubert admits that the league's involvement in India has been "more opportunistic", but that it is looking to capitalise on the growth of soccer in the country in recent years.
The commitment has been driven to some extent by the LFP's six-year title sponsorship deal for the Coupe de la Ligue with BKT, the Indian tyre supplier, which is paying €3 million ($3.36 million) per season for the rights.
• Marseille have extended their sponsorship deal with Boulanger, the French appliances company, for the 2019-20 season.
Under the renewed agreement, the company's logo will continue to feature on the back of the southern club's shirt. The relationship dates back to the start of the 2015-16 campaign.
Telecoms firm Orange is Marseille's main shirt sponsor, and has naming rights to the team's Stade Velodrome home.
• Inter Miami CF, the new club backed by former England star David Beckham and due to enter MLS in 2020, has appointed Elevate to direct the ticket sales plan in its first season in the league.
As the expansion franchise's premium sales agency, Elevate will support the premium, season and individual ticket sales strategy, servicing and hospitality.
Inter Miami envisage spending their first two years at a new 18,000-capacity stadium to be built on the site of the current Lockhart Stadium now undergoing demolition. However, the long-term plan is for a permanent stadium either close to Miami International Airport or in the city's Overtown neighbourhood.
Miami has not had an MLS team since the Miami Fusion folded in 2001.