Real Madrid's Sergio Ramos (R) celebrates with teammates after scoring against Mallorca
Real Madrid celebrate Image Credit: AFP

Dubai: Maite Ventura, La Liga’s Managing Director for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), is confident football will return resilient and stronger from the COVID-19 crisis.

The head of Spanish football league’s MENA operations made the statement during a webinar, organised by Dubai Sports Council (DSC) in collaboration with La Liga. The event attracted 169 participants, including top officials from football clubs in Spain and the UAE.

Titled ‘Football Clubs’ strategy for recovery post COVID-19’, the webinar saw extensive discussions as the panellists shared their insights on the way forward for the football industry in the near future.

As keynote speakers, Ali Omar, Director of the Sports Development Department of DSC, and Maite Ventura got the discussions started before leaving the stage for the three panellists from Spain — Franco Segarra, Head of data analytics, ticketing and fan experience at La Liga’s Valencia CF; Federico Gonzalez, adviser at Spanish Second Division club Real Oviedo; and Francesc Arnau, the former Barcelona and Malaga goalkeeper who is now Technical Director at Real Oviedo.

The list of panellist also included top officials from the four Dubai football clubs — Dr Khalid Al Zahed, Executive Director of Shabab Al Ahli Dubai; Saeed Ali Al Amri, Executive Director of Al Nasr; Humaid Yousuf, Director of the Football Section at Al Wasl Club; and Ali Al Bedwawi, Executive Director of Hatta Club.

“First of all, I would like to thank Dubai Sports Council for providing us with this amazing platform to be able to share our insights on COVID-19 and its impact on the football industry,” said Ventura. “Thanks also to all the Dubai clubs for joining us, and also to Valencia CF and Real Oviedo.

“The coronavirus pandemic has hit the whole world and it has definitely affected the sports industry. It has been a very difficult period for us, but we have been working very hard to adapt, and to adjust to a new reality, with our ultimate goal being to connect to millions of our fans worldwide,” Ventura said at the webinar.

“Right now, our focus is fully on recovery and this began with the restart of our league, which kicked off on June 11. The possibility of having our players back on the pitch and being able to finish the season has been a great accomplishment for La Liga. We consider it as the first step towards the recovery of the football industry,” she added.

“We are adapting to these new times. For a start, we are playing behind closed doors, which means we need to deliver a great entertainment experience to our fans watching around the world. Apart from this, there are many other challenges and factors impacting the football industry, such as the financial implications and the consequences for players and their contracts. However, at La Liga, we firmly believe that the football industry will recover and return as strong as it was before, or even stronger,” she stressed.

Gonzalez also shared the optimism and saluted the team at Real Oviedo for anticipating the problems that arose following lockdowns around the globe, and finding solutions to keep generating revenue through the crisis in a country which was one of the worst-hit as the pandemic peaked in Europe.

“At Real Oviedo, we were able to anticipate this situation,” Gonzalez said.

“So we started planning early, from the time we first heard about COVID-19. We started working on different plans to try to compensate for the loss of income that we knew would follow. Our team started a big online campaign, focusing on virtual marketing and sales, which was a big source of revenue for us during that period. The team kept working hard from home — as hard, or even harder, than they used to work from office — generating income,” he added.

“They have continued their hard work, and they continue to adapt and innovate as they look for new ways to generate income and attract sponsors in a very challenging marketplace. But we remain optimistic because we are confident a lot of the investors will be back soon, and we will bounce back stronger from this period.”

Speaking of the challenges from a training perspective, Real Oviedo’s Technical Director Arnau, noted: “In the last few months, the technical staff has been focused on maintaining the physical condition of the players, who have been training at homes. Now we are trying to adapt to the new COVID-19 safety protocols, which have been prescribed by La Liga, because the most important thing for us is the health and safety of the players and all the staff at the club. So we have been trying to adapt to evolving situations, new challenges and protocols.”

While the football leagues in Europe have resumed, only a few of them are allowing fans to attend. Most matches are taking place behind closed doors, which means a loss of revenue for clubs in terms of match-day ticket sales. Additionally, the clubs will owe their season-pass holders for the matches they could not attend.

Valencia’s ticketing chief Segarra said: “Valencia has a stadium with a capacity of about 48,000 to 48,800, depending on the competition. The maximum number of season ticket holders we can have in the stands is 40,000. We cannot have more because when you play Uefa competitions, you need to have some spare seats for away fans.

“So, right now we have 40,000 season ticket holders and we owe them something. The reason is, they have paid to watch an X number of games in the season. Our season ticket includes all the matches that are played at our stadium, but there are five matches that will be played behind closed doors without fans. The problem here, because of COVID-19, is that not only are we not going to get extra money from match-day ticketing, but we also owe from the money we have already received and accounted from season-ticket holders.

“So we need to get really creative to find a way of, on the one hand, making the customers — in our case the season-pass holders — happy, and on the other, avoid giving back the money we owe them. We need to turn this crisis into an opportunity and see what we can do.”