Boardroom went behind the scenes of the Real Madrid-Barcelona El Clásico in Spain to discover the business behind sports’ greatest rivalry.
Twice a year, two of the world’s most popular teams in the world’s most popular sport do battle in front of hundreds of millions of fans across the globe, dwarfing the Super Bowl’s annual audience. The FC Barcelona–Real Madrid matchup dating back to 1902, known as El Clásico, transcends sports, with political undertones in a battle between Madrid’s Spanish nationalism and Barcelona’s Catalan independence and local autonomy.
With a combined Forbes valuation of more than $11 billion and 19 Champions League titles between them, the Spanish giants are two of soccer’s three most valuable clubs, with storied franchises and hundreds of millions of global fans obsessed with their favorite teams and even more obsessed with their teams beating their bitter arch-nemesis.
Quite simply, El Clásico is the greatest athletic rivalry on earth.
While the two clubs have yet to fully recover financially from the pandemic, Real Madrid and Barcelona ranked second and seventh, respectively, in this year’s Deloitte Football Money League rankings. Madrid increased revenues by 11% in 2022 to €713.8 million, while Barca’s revenue spiked 10% to €638.2 million. While both are well shy of their 2019 peaks, new commercial opportunities, broadcast revenue, and matchday sales are bringing both teams back.
And El Clásico is at the heart of it all, forming the backbone for the iconic clubs’ on and off-pitch success.
During the last weekend of October, Boardroom joined La Liga on a group trip to Barcelona to witness El Clásico in person and speak with team, league, and ESPN executives to get a firsthand look at the incredible rivalry and the business behind its phenomenal success.
Since 2018, La Liga has operated in the United States and Canada in a 50-50 joint venture with Relevent Sports to negotiate media rights, sponsorship, licensing, merchandising, and anything commercial the league wants to pursue. In May 2021, La Liga signed an eight-year, $1.4 billion deal with ESPN for its US rights. A month later, La Liga and Relevent extended their partnership to Mexico and Central America and inked a $600 million Mexican rights deal through 2031, helping the North American subsidiary quickly turn a profit. Those two media contracts represent La Liga’s largest outside of Spain.
La Liga’s overarching international strategy launched in 2016 and is now in 44 different countries. But the US and China were La Liga’s obvious priority foreign markets and strategic focal points to help bring additional revenue and awareness to the league’s 20 clubs, including Barcelona and Real Madrid. El Clásico is a major reason why La Liga has shown success both domestically and abroad, according to Boris Gartner, La Liga North America’s CEO.
“El Clásico has really become almost a brand of its own,” Gartner told Boardroom. “People recognize El Clásico similar to how they recognize the Super Bowl. You might not be following the NFL year-round, but you know what the Super Bowl means and how important it is. With El Clásico, you may not be a huge soccer fan or follow the league day in and day out, but you know that’s the game to watch.”
While February’s Super Bowl drew 115 million viewers in the US and 56 million internationally, El Clásico is watched in more than 185 countries with a potential audience of 650 million viewers, per La Liga figures. The league leans on the Real-Barca matchup to market the overall competition, with 20 teams and 380 matches per season featuring popular clubs like Atletico Madrid, Sevilla, Valencia, and Villarreal. They’re equally interested in promoting those teams, Gartner said, but La Liga isn’t shying away from anchoring its business with its two largest clubs and two of the world’s most ubiquitous sporting brands.
La Liga schedules its two annual Clásicos around its two biggest international markets. One matchup is scheduled for late night in China, and another is scheduled for the afternoon in the US. The matchup in late October in Barcelona was scheduled for 4:15 p.m. local time, 11:15 p.m. in China, and 10:15 a.m. in the eastern US. The April game in Madrid will be at about 9 p.m. local time or 3 p.m. in the States.
“From a marketing perspective, this is our Super Bowl moment,” Gartner said.
Since this Clásico was early in America, La Liga focused its marketing efforts on the east coast, with official watch parties in Miami, New York, Boston, Washington, DC, and Chicago. More than 1,200 people attended the collective morning events, including 500 in Miami alone. A larger league initiative called El Partidazo takes one big match per month and runs different events across the US and Mexico as a branded experience with watch parties featuring ambassador and legend experiences.
“If we create a brand around those events that people start recognizing and become familiar with,” Gartner explained, “and we go back to the same cities multiple times a year instead of going with just one game and disappear for a year, you create this habit and this closeness to the league that will be better in the long run.”
After flying in from New York on Thursday, the soccer trip to Barcelona truly began Friday morning with a visit to the official FC Barcelona museum. This Clásico would be different from any of the previous 254 meetings because Barca’s historic Camp Nou stadium was undergoing renovations so extensive that no matches are taking place there this season.
October’s game took place at the picturesque, 55,000-seat Estadi Olímpic inside Barcelona’s mountainous Parque Montjuïc, the main stadium for the 1992 Summer Olympics. Normally located inside the stadium, FCB spent €10 million on a temporary museum that would only stand for two years.
Barcelona’s team museum is big business. In a normal year, the team generates €42 million per year in ticket sales, €44 million at its attached team shop, and €6 million alone on an estimated 300,000 photos snapped during museum visits, according to Jordi Penas, Barca’s museum director. During stadium renovations, museum-related revenues are down by about half, he said.
“Economically, it is a disaster,” Penas told the tour group.
At the end of the museum tour, Penas took the group to a normally closed rooftop looking out at the ongoing Camp Nou renovation. Barcelona was still in the demolition phase of the renovation, with the upper bowl completely gone as part of a €1.5 billion revitalization project for the entire surrounding area. An outdoor structure that will contain a parking garage was further along in construction than the stadium itself.
The new Camp Nou will eventually seat 105,000, and the team expects to return to its historic home in November 2024 at half capacity, with a completed renovation expected in 2026. The project also includes a replacement for its 52-year-old Palau Blaugrana, a 7,500-seat indoor arena for its basketball, handball, and roller hockey teams. The 15,000-seat venue’s expected completion date is also 2026, with a greater ability to host concerts and other events. The larger project will also contain a hotel and officer towers.
“It’s going to be like a mini city,” Penas said. “It’s an investment in the future.”
This enormous investment wouldn’t be possible without tentpole marquee matchups like the Champions League or El Clásico. The same goes for Real Madrid’s €1 billion recently completed renovation of its Santiago Bernabéu stadium that took three years, increases the seating capacity to 85,000, and features a fully retractable pitch.
Though Real Madrid and Barcelona are the most bitter of rivals, and while Penas made it clear that he wanted nothing more than to destroy Madrid on the pitch, he also knows that the two teams need each other to succeed.
“Having big teams play against us gives us air and money,” Penas said. “It’s very clear that one plus one equals three, not two.”
The next step on the tour was to a hotel in the Port Vell marina, where ESPN set up its broadcast operations for the weekend. ESPN sent more than 30 employees to Spain on one of the rare occasions the network travels for on-site La Liga coverage. Its broadcast talent entered a second-floor conference room flanked by Rodolfo Martinez, its senior vice president of international and ESPN Deportes production. He’s responsible, according to his company bio, for live events, studio shows, news, and information for all ESPN networks outside the US.
Martinez believes it’s crucial to show viewers that El Clásico is a special event, even bringing staff to Barcelona in August 2021 during the pandemic. While the $170 million per year media rights deal is for all 380 matches per year in La Liga, ESPN surely knows El Clásico is where its bread is buttered.
“We do other matches in Spain,” Martinez told Boardroom, “but we come to El Clásico because, without a doubt, that’s our highest-rated match. There is no other. This is the third year of our new contract, and I can tell you that it’s El Clásico, El Clásico, and then everything else.”
Saturday morning before the match, the group arrived at a parking lot outside Estadi Olímpic to witness the game’s production setup at several large trailers. We were greeted by La Liga Head of TV production Antonio del Castillo and Oscar Lago, Mediapro’s TV sports match director, who described how they elevate El Clásico into a sensory spectacle. Lago oversaw the world feed containing 38 different cameras situated around and above the pitch. That’s 15 more than the average La Liga telecast and as many as the Champions League final.
“The Clásicos are a tier of their own,” Gartner said. “The amount of promotion that ESPN puts behind the two Clásicos is exponentially higher than what they put behind promoting the rest of the games.”
Friday at ESPN’s mobile compound, much of the pregame hype centered around how 20-year-old British superstar Jude Bellingham would fare in his first ever Clásico after a €103 million transfer over the summer from Borussia Dortmund.
“He started his career at Real Madrid very well, hasn’t he?” Steve McManaman, ESPN analyst and former Real Madrid winger, wondered. “If anything, he’s probably started too well. People are talking, is he the greatest player England’s ever had? And I think people should just leave him be and let him develop. I just hope he continues with a big game tomorrow.”
Off the pitch, Spotify’s three-year deal with Barcelona for naming rights to Camp Nou and jersey sponsorship rights is worth more than $300 million per season, helping the club rebound from financial difficulties that necessitated Messi’s 2021 departure to Paris Saint-Germain. The Spotify deal saw The Rolling Stones’ ubiquitous logo on the front of Barcelona’s jersey against Real Madrid, following previous one-offs with Drake’s OVO and Latin superstar Rosalía.
And in December 2021, CVC Capital Partners invested nearly €2 billion for an 8.2% stake in La Liga. It’s a move that Gartner said allows the league to focus on long-term projects without worrying about short-term cash or immediate financial expenditures.
On Saturday afternoon, game day, the walk to the stadium from the Plaça d’Espanya with tens of thousands of fans up a series of escalators was magnificent and unlike any the 121-year rivalry had experienced before. Then, the match itself more than lived up to the hype.
A sixth-minute Barcelona goal gave the home side the lead, but Bellingham tied the game on a 68th-minute rocket and won it on a rebound in the second minute of extra time. It gave Real Madrid a statement 2-1 win and delivered Bellingham’s transcendent, megastar-making moment that fans around the world won’t soon forget.
With Bellingham and Vinicius Jr. dominating for Madrid and youngsters like Gavi and Pedri emerging at Barcelona, the average age of both squads is now in the low 20s, perhaps signaling a new era and a bright future for El Clásico.
“The Clásico is in itself an institution, and institutions are way larger than the players that play in it,” Fernando Palomo, who called El Clásico for ESPN in Spanish, said. “The players go by, but the institution remains.”
Every club goes through cycles, Gartner said, but to La Liga, the El Clásico rivalry is rather simple. Real Madrid and Barcelona will always attract world-class talent, and the game will always attract nine-figure audiences.
Twice a year, two of the most valuable and popular sports clubs on earth do battle with the whole world watching. El Clásico is sports, and the magic of the game and the full weekend in October only further proved why it’s a bucket list experience and a matchup you can’t afford to miss.
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