The women came in high heels and skin-tight dresses. The men wore expensive suits with glittering cufflinks. And the lamb chops were encrusted with pistachio. It was, in other words, a sumptuous show befitting the La Liga -- or "the greatest soccer league in the universe," as a video confidently announced.
The event was a prequel to today's official announcement that TV network beIN Sport has rights to broadcast La Liga games within the U.S. next season. But the gala was also a brief glimpse into new Liga president Javier Tebas's plans for reducing debt, fighting corruption, and expanding stateside. "We have to work to expand the La Liga brand here," he told Riptide. "The United States is a market you can't ignore."
But Tebas didn't help his cause when he called American soccer fans "cold."
Tebas's visit is just the latest in a series of signs that European soccer is taking root in South Florida. Last August, a sold out Sun Life Stadium hosted 70,000 futbol fans for a game between Barcelona and Mexican team Chivas de Guadalajara. The Miami Dolphins have agreed to stage more international soccer games as part of any deal to renovate Sun Life Stadium. Tebas, who was elected Liga president only a week ago, spoke warmly of the American soccer market and its local league, Major League Soccer. "There are some very good players here, [Latin] American as well as American," he said. "There are some teams that are on the level of those in Spain or Europe. But what is lacking is the international projection" of the league.
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He said that La Liga is currently opening offices in the U.S., Asia, and the Middle East "to expand the La Liga brand." "The big clubs [like Barcelona and Real Madrid] are already well known," he said. "But we have to promote more the idea of the league." The growing number of club friendlies and international competitions in the U.S. are a sign that it's a market "you can't ignore, that we want to tour, and that we have to work on still." Just when we Americans were feeling catered to, Tebas had to knock us down a peg. "The Americas are more passionate towards the south and less passionate as you move north. I don't know why the equator divides things like that. But it's very passionate, most of all in Argentina, of course, Uruguay, Chile. In America and Mexico it's colder. I can't explain why [fans] aren't more heated." But before Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers, or New York Red Bull fans go ballistic, they should bask in the fact that the MLS is on much better financial footing than "the greatest soccer league in the universe." Tebas admitted that there is a serious risk that La Liga team Deportivo La Coruña -- along with several second division clubs -- could crumble under spiraling debts. "La Liga is going to work very hard to make sure that these teams don't disappear but with the economic situation in the country, we could have problems with some of them," he said. Málaga, another top team, has been barred from the elite and lucrative Champions League competition next year because of new European football financial rules. "We are changing, regulation wise and psychologically," Tebas said. "It's important. We have to pay what we owe and only spend what we earn."
Tebas was more blasé about two other areas in which the MLS leads La Liga: competitiveness and fighting corruption. In the past nine years, only two teams -- Real and Barcelona -- have won La Liga, compared to six in the MLS (or three in the English Premier League). The two Spanish teams are the biggest on the planet, each earning more than $600 million a year and boosted by the lion's share of TV revenues. But Tebas dismissed any suggestion of a duopoly. "I don't see a problem," he said. "You have to realize that during those nine years, Barcelona has had one of the greatest teams in soccer history. If you have one of the best teams in history, of course you would expect that to happen."
He said that Barcelona's current advantage in La Liga (a nearly insurmountable 11 points over Real with five games left to play) is in line with other leagues. "If Real Madrid and Barcelona weren't competing for championships you'd say that we were in crisis," Tebas argued. "That would bother me." Finally, Tebas admitted that corruption is a problem in La Liga. "Yes, it affects us, the same as other leagues," he said. As for ongoing investigations into accusations of match-fixing last season, Tebas said La Liga was "working on it." "These things take time," he said. "Corruption cases take years to investigate." Follow Miami New Times on Facebook and Twitter @MiamiNewTimes. Follow this journalist on Twitter @MikeMillerMiami.