To grow in the United States, Ligue 1 has to change.

France’s top division on the men’s side, Ligue Un, has faced challenges in terms of breaking into the US market. PSG has exhibited success both on the pitch and from a marketability standpoint. Still, Ligue Un, or LFP, lags behind the other “big five” European leagues in terms of visibility in the US. Much of this has been due to a deal with beIN Sports. It has been the league’s broadcast partner since 2013. That deal has hamstrung growth in the US market. 

Recently, World Soccer Talk sat down with LFP Chief Executive Ben Morel. He discussed the league’s strategy for penetrating the US market.

Morel came to Ligue Un earlier in 2023 after a five-year stint as CEO of Six Nations Rugby. Before that, Morel served in various capacities for the NBA for over 20 years. That experience gives Morel an insight into the US market that was previously lacking at Ligue Un. 

Morel addressed the broadcast situation with World Soccer Talk. He indicated the league is looking very seriously at how it better engages the US market with its upcoming deal. The current rights package with beIN Sports expires at the end of this season, in June 2024. 

The next US TV deal

“Ligue 1 wants to connect with fans in a very different way than before,” Morel said.

That includes the US broadcast deal it is currently working on. That is the key part where Morel understands Ligue 1 needs to do things differently.

“We believe we are well primed to be successful there [in the USA].” 

Beyond an enhanced broadcast media presence, the league needs to upgrade its visibility in other areas. “We need to improve our grassroots [efforts, upgrade] digitally, we have US players playing in our league we can market. It’s about how we are going to better connect with our fan base and potential fans.” 

The Ligue 1 executive indicated the impending deal will last three to five years. “We want a partner that embraces the ambition for us to tell the right story, we are also leading directly those discussions with the help of Octagon.”

This media firm brokered the first NWSL rights deal with CBS Sports in early 2020.

“We are supported by the rEvolution [agency] who are helping with our marketing and preparing the marketplace for the next season,” Morel continued. “We are working with the best agencies to help prepare the marketplace to work with a future broadcaster, which is about really creating something relevant for our US fans.” 

This is a clear sign that Ligue Un knows it must pivot to another broadcaster in the United States. Simultaneously the league must upgrade the visibility and relevance of its product to work with a new media partner. 

American Investment in French soccer as a potential driver of US interest

In recent years, American investors have seen France as an attractive target for new investment in the game. Multiple high-profile French clubs have either majority owners that are from the US or strategic investments from US-based firms. Morel sees that as an opportunity to build the Ligue Un footprint in the US as well with this increased investment into the league from the US,

“Yeah, we are extremely pleased to see all this investment coming from the US for many years. We see ourselves in French football as one of the best in the world if not the best. When you consider the national team, young players, the quality of our academies, and the breadth of talent. That has not translated yet into the strength of our league. We need to become more relevant internationally, and the US is a key market to that.”

Elite young talents and street culture provide a connection to the USA

The young-player advantage of Ligue Un Morel feels represents an opportunity in the US market.

“Because of the level of talent that’s coming through our league each year, we have a long-term strategy of how we are going to retain them. The way we are going to grow revenues is one component of this, the way we’re going to reward European performances with additional revenue is part of this, so there’s lots of potential. We are probably behind in terms of international activity in terms of communications but at the same time, we have to plan for the US market.

“I spent 20 years very successfully promoting the NBA, so now I know what it takes to market a French property in the US. You need time and resources, we have that. But also, we need to connect with all angles possible.

“It starts with a strong broadcast relationship, which is fundamental. We are in the process of discussing strong alliances with US broadcasters. That’s our goal. We want to be, the league of diversity, we believe French football has that specificity. We have a diversity of talent, in our youth of cultures. France combined that talent and street culture in our football. We have the street credibility and culture. The two aspects resonate with both France and the US. You see it with the NBA’s success in France and we believe you will see it with French soccer in the US.” 

Better storytelling and development of content to connect with US fans

In terms of marketing individual clubs and storylines, La Liga recently set up a studio exclusively dedicated to developing content for the North American market. Following up on the success of the Premier League in creating context, storyline, and color behind its product in the US, Ligue Un is planning to ramp up its efforts at original storytelling as well as developing the brand identities of its clubs in the US market. 

“It’s absolutely fundamental [to market clubs] as part of the new brand platform we’re developing for the 2024-25 season. We are in the authentic unscripted storytelling business. The US audience wants to know the character of the show, who is playing, what’s the story behind it. Because of the diversity of our league, we have fascinating stories to tell. With our strong investment in new content development which will be very relevant in our key international markets of which the US is number one, we will be telling stories in a unique and effective way.”

PSG is a very well-known brand in mainstream US sports culture, but beyond that club, French soccer falls into a smaller vacuum in the United States. One of Ligue Un’s challenges in this market is to improve the visibility and supportability of other clubs. Morel feels the recent success of other clubs such as Lyon, Lille, Monaco, and others can help.

“PSG is a wonderful leader for us in spearheading our efforts,” Morel said. “They have become a true brand that spans the globe but especially in the US. But our job as a league is to promote the diversity of all our teams and the way those clubs approach local culture. Look at Lens, who finished just one point back last year [behind PSG]. They have a local culture and captivate a whole region. They are in the Champions League this year. Toulouse recently had a win against Liverpool in European competition. All of this creates additional stories. We reduced [the size of the first division] from 20 teams to 18, and that gives us the ability to tell a strong story about competition for European places.” 

Bottom Line

Ligue Un realizes it is behind other top European leagues in penetrating the US market but is quickly pivoting on multiple fronts to grow its profile and relevance for US fans. This process includes securing a better media deal than the league currently has as well as leveraging key stories and other advantages such as youth players and street culture in the US market.