June 4, 2016, was a landmark day in the history of Club Deportivo Leganes. Pablo Insua’s winning goal not only secured a 1-0 victory against Mirandes on the final day of the season, but propelled the club into La Liga for the first time in its 88-year history.
Based on the outskirts of Madrid, with a stadium that seats just shy of 11,000 spectators, Leganes provided the only domestic bright spark for the Spanish capital in 2015/16. Although Atletico and Real met in the Champions League final, both were pipped to the Primera Division title by Barcelona, while Getafe and Rayo Vallecano were relegated to the Segunda.
Leganes may be a small team, but they have big ambitions. Handed a blueprint for survival by fellow first-timers Eibar, whose survival for the past two seasons has defied all expectation, the club has made a superb start to life in La Liga. Leganes already have two away wins under their belt, as well as a hugely creditable 0-0 draw at home to Atletico – Jose Luis Mendilibar’s side managing to nullify Antoine Griezmann & Co, something that not even Barcelona could manage in last week’s 1-1 draw at the Nou Camp.
While on the pitch performances have earned acclaim, developments off it have also begun to garner interest. In recent weeks, Leganes officials have travelled to both the UAE and China to secure international partnerships for a club looking to take full advantage of its status as a La Liga outfit.
The commercial deal struck in Dubai is particularly intriguing, given that it could revolutionise the concept of shirt sponsorship in football.
Saudi Arabian sports marketing company MBUZZ Sport bought up the rights to appear on the front of Leganes’ shirts in the 2016/17 season. It is not the first Saudi foray into La Liga shirt sponsorship, with MBUZZ Sport’s parent company MCCI, a mobile communications giant, linking up with Getafe for a brief stint towards the end of last season.
What makes the Leganes agreement different, however, is that MBUZZ Sport are planning to license out their shirt sponsorship to the highest bidder. It won’t be done on a season-by-season basis, but in “packages of games”, meaning Leganes will likely have multiple different names on their shirts in 2016/17.
“The idea is to give small and medium sized companies a chance to get exposure in La Liga for the first time,” CEO of MBUZZ Sport Youssef Abdellaoui told Sport360.
“The cost of sponsoring shirts for the season is certainly prohibitive to many so instead of giving them one season, we’ll give them a third of the season, maybe even just three or four games. They get to see the value added to that brand or sponsorship and then maybe next year you might have them for the full season.
“It’s going to be up to the customer. If they want only one match, we will advise them, okay, maybe the exposure would be better with two or three matches or more. But maybe they just want to feature against Real Madrid or Barcelona. If that’s what they want, they can get it.”
It’s not a unique idea. In 2010, during Tottenham’s first foray into the Champions League, asset management firm Investec sponsored the club’s shirts in Europe while software company Autonomy appeared in the Premier League.
The appeal certainly seemed a little less obvious with Leganes. So why did MBUZZ take a punt on a newly promoted La Liga side?
“Leganes I see it like Leicester,” Abdellaoui explained. “No-one would have ever thought Leicester could win the Premier League but this is the beauty of football. Leganes have been managed extremely well and, despite not having much money, have managed to get to La Liga. I was at the Atletico game and they showed how good they can be. They have what it takes to stay in La Liga. They are fighters.
“The big clubs are the big clubs. Everybody knows about Barcelona and Real Madrid but five years ago no-one was talking about Atletico. They weren’t considered one of the biggest teams and certainly weren’t one of the riches teams. Now it is a completely different story. Why can’t Leganes be a part of that as well? Why not any other team?
“We find comfort with Leganes. They have shown they are ready and keen to promote themselves and the GCC, especially in the Saudi market. Our objectives aren’t just related to the team’s performance, though if they stay in the La Liga and do well, that’s a good thing for them and that is of course what we want.
“But it is also about the infrastructure of the club, the academy, the relationship with the community. These are things that are important.”
Indeed, the scope of the partnership goes beyond shirt sponsorship. MBUZZ’s parent company MCCI is installing Wi-Fi at the club’s Estadio Municipal de Butarque home, while Leganes will send coaches and potentially players to work and play in the Saudi Pro League.
For Leganes vice president Felipe Moreno, it is the opportunity to expose the name of Leganes to a new audience that is one of the most appealing aspects of the deal.
“The economic side is the least important right now,” Moreno said. “We don’t just want to take money from the Arab world, we want to create a pathway between football in Spain and the Arab world. We want to lead the way in this collaboration. We will also invite coaches from Saudi Arabia to see the way we work, see the team in the best league in the world. In both Spain and the Middle East, we want to help create young men that are very competitive and understand the value of respect.”
The aspirations of Leganes don’t end there. Moreno revealed officials are pressing ahead with a proposal to change the club name to Club Deportivo Leganes Madrid in time for next season, with hopes that a closer association with the capital will make the team even more marketable. However, he concedes that there are no plans to sell off naming rights to the stadium, which is named after exalted local patron Nuestra Senora de Butarque.
“I don’t think we could ever change the name of Estadio Butarque,” Moreno said. “The whole city is named after Butarque and the fans would not like it. But the name of the club, it is just a minor adjustment that could make a big difference.
“We want to have our name on the map of the world so rather than being Leganes CD we want to be Leganes Madrid. We are in Madrid, a suburb of Madrid, and we want this to happen. It’s about exposing the club to the outside world.”
La Liga’s exposure in Saudi Arabia is certainly increasing all the time and Saudi involvement in European football is only going to get bigger given the division’s popularity continues to rise among the Gulf state’s fans and businesses continues to grow.
However, Jon Long, MENA managing director of sports analytics company Nielsen, believes that while Saudi investment is on the up, the Saudi Pro League still provides excellent sponsorship opportunities thanks to its enduring popularity.
“The Middle East continues to play a big role in European football sponsorship. Traditionally it has been the UAE and Qatar which have dominated that investment, most notably the major airlines, Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways,” Long said.
“The role of Saudi Arabian brands is less well documented but there is now around $20m (Dh73m) per year being invested by Saudi-based companies in European football sponsorship with STC leading the way through long-term partnerships with both Manchester United and Real Madrid that focus on marketing rights other than shirt sponsorship.
“Saudi brands have to weigh up such activities against the opportunities in the local league, which attracts big domestic television audiences in its own right,” added Long. MBUZZ Sport has opted to turn outwards from the Middle East with the Leganes agreement, though the company is adamant that there will be tangible benefits domestically given the depth of the deal with regards to coaching.
For Leganes, meanwhile, it is all about making the most of their time in the spotlight.