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  • Spain’s soccer league courts title sponsor and global growth
  • ‘A long way to go’ to build a brand to rival Premier League

When Real Madrid meets Atlético Madrid in the Champions League final on Saturday, they will play for a 15-million-euro purse and all-Europe bragging rights. For La Liga, the Spanish league where Madrid’s crosstown rivals compete in the regular season, the stakes are just as high.

Long overshadowed by its best teams, La Liga is campaigning to become a global brand like England’s Premier League, and league executives hope this weekend’s playoff will help secure a new 25 million euro ($28 million) annual title sponsor.

“It’s the perfect showcase,” Adolfo Bara, La Liga’s general manager for marketing and sales, said in an interview. “When we are selling La Liga, we are saying we are the best championship in the world.”

Global reach is a new ambition for Spanish soccer. Until recently, the league’s business strategy was deeply provincial, even as its teams consistently ranked among the best in Europe. Clubs sold sponsorships and TV deals individually and shared little revenue. Top teams like Real Madrid and F.C. Barcelona got wildly rich, but smaller teams fell behind, with several close to bankruptcy following the 2008 financial crisis.

Sharing the Wealth

Three years ago, La Liga hired Javier Tebas as its president. A lawyer and longtime soccer executive, Tebas made his first goal to market the league’s TV rights as a package, settling years of wrangling between Barcelona, Real and the other clubs. The top two still earn more -- next season, they’ll get a payout 3.5 times bigger than their smaller competitors -- but it’s closer to parity than the previous 13.5-to-1 ratio Bara describes. The smallest clubs will get on average 40 million euros from TV sales, more than 60 percent the amount they made under the previous arrangements.

“Our challenge is to convince them to have a joined-up approach,” Bara said of Barcelona, home to global superstar Lionel Messi, and Real Madrid, where Cristiano Ronaldo plays. “What we tell them is, if we grow as a league you are going to grow.”

Bara’s attention has turned to sponsorship revenue, which has more than doubled since 2013 to 75 million euros from 35 million. His goal is to reach 100 million euros by 2019, starting with a 25-million-euro-per-year title sponsor to replace Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria SA next season. In keeping with its own ambitions, the league wants a partner with a global footprint -- a presence in at least 80 countries, Bara said.

Playing Catch-Up

That’s a measure of how far La Liga has come, and also how far it has to go. The Premier League recently abandoned its longtime title sponsor, Barclays Plc, in favor of a handful of sponsors in different categories. The bank was paying 40 million pounds annually, but the U.K. league calculated it could make more money from several top-tier partners and shore up its own standalone brand at the same time.

“The Premier League spent 20 years building its brand with buy-in from all its clubs,” said Charlie Dundas, commercial director at SMG Insight, a London-based sports sponsorship advisor. “La Liga feels secondary to the rivalry between Real and Barcelona. They’ve got a long way to go.”

Catching up will be a challenge. Starting next season, Premier League clubs will get the first installments of a record-breaking television rights contract worth about about 2.7 billion pounds ($3.9 billion) per year, more than double the 1.5 billion euros ($1.7 billion) earned by Spanish teams.

Tebas is looking east to China, which has redoubled its efforts in all things soccer. President Xi Jinping has made the sport an official state priority, prompting business leaders to spend generously on teams and global sponsorship arrangements. La Liga now has offices in Shanghai and Beijing, and several Spanish teams have scored Chinese investment either through stake sales or marketing deals.

“The money there is huge,” said Bara.