Keegan Pierce: An American in London working for Spain's LaLiga

Keegan Pierce  fell in love with soccer while growing up in Oakland, California, as the USA's hosting of the 1994 World Cup lifted the sport to a new level of popularity in the USA. Pierce, who is fluent in English, Spanish, Catalan, French and Portuguese, moved to Europe a decade ago after working in MLS. For the past two years he has been serving as Spain LaLiga's Delegate to the UK & Ireland.

SA: What does your job as LaLiga’s delegate to the UK and Ireland entail?

KEEGAN PIERCE: As you know, Spanish soccer has grown considerably in recent years under the leadership of LaLiga president Javier Tebas. Starting in 2017, we deployed business representatives to more than 40 countries around the world, as part of a program called LaLiga Global Network. My role consists essentially of growing LaLiga’s business and brand presence in this highly competitive sports and entertainment market. Needless to say, it’s a fun challenge.

SA: How does an American end up getting a position like that?

KEEGAN PIERCE: After five years working in MLS, first on the digital side and later in broadcasting and media relations with Chivas USA, I moved to Barcelona to do an MBA. LaLiga was actively recruiting sports-business professionals with international experience and I signed up for this Global Network adventure. The selection process was exhaustive: LaLiga received more than 10,000 applications, and our initial crop of recruits went through an intensive two-month onboarding process in Madrid. Eventually I was deployed to London, in parallel with colleagues now based across Asia, Europe, Africa and the Americas.

SA: How would you gauge the popularity of LaLiga abroad to other leagues?

KEEGAN PIERCE: LaLiga is enjoyed by billions of fans around the world and our reach is growing every day. Eleven of the last 15 Champions League and Europa League finals have featured clubs from LaLiga. Not just the “big three” clubs, as in Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atlético Madrid, but also Sevilla and Athletic Bilbao. Who knows, maybe Valencia or Villarreal as well this year? No other league can claim that level of success, and fans worldwide are attracted to that.

If you take into account the quality of play in LaLiga and the global profile of our star players, by any objective criteria it’s the best league out there. We’re fully aware, of course, that soccer is a competitive global landscape, but we’ll proudly hold our competition up against any other.

SA: What are some of the things LaLiga has done to increase its following and popularity abroad?

KEEGAN PIERCE: LaLiga strives to be closer to fans wherever they may be. An important step was taken in 2015, when the league adopted a collective model of packaging and selling our broadcast rights. Since then, the quality of LaLiga’s broadcast product has grown by leaps and bounds, with a unique look-and-feel, and a whole series of innovations that take fans “inside” the action.

On social media, we now publish in 19 different languages, and last year we surpassed the Premier League in number of Facebook followers. Overseas roles like mine are another sign of LaLiga’s global ambition: When you have representatives on the ground, in-market worldwide, it makes you better at understanding and responding to fan needs and preferences. This is what we refer to as our “glocal” strategy, setting global objectives and translating them into local implementation. LaLiga North America, our recently announced joint-venture with Relevent, is yet another example of that.

SA: Despite LaLiga being one of the best, if not the best leagues in the world, one hears about Spanish clubs with financial problems. Is this something that has been addressed with a change in the TV rights distribution?

KEEGAN PIERCE: LaLiga took two key steps starting in 2015. As mentioned, it centralized the sale of broadcasting rights, which resulted in increased earnings for clubs across the board. In fact, the total value of LaLiga’s rights has more than doubled in that short period of time. In parallel, LaLiga successfully implemented its own “economic control” mechanisms that apply to all clubs in the first and second divisions of Spanish soccer.

In a nutshell, what this does is link clubs’ budgets on the soccer side to the overall amount of revenue they are generating on the business side, thereby compelling clubs to live within their means. As a consequence, the overwhelming majority of LaLiga’s teams are now profitable, and the level of tax debt has been vastly reduced. Our model has been studied by leagues around the world, which we encourage, as a more effective way of ensuring the financial viability of clubs.

Keegan Pierce's Top 5 favorite soccer books

Morbo: The Story of Spanish Football, by Phil Ball
Fear and Loathing in LaLiga, by Sid Lowe
Fever Pitch, by Nick Hornby
It's Not About the Bra, by Brandi Chastain
The Miracle of Castel di Sangro, by Joe McGinniss

SA: Are there are any remarkable differences between the English Premier League and LaLiga fan stadium experiences?

KEEGAN PIERCE: Among all the leagues in Europe, for me it’s the diversity of LaLiga’s fan base that really stands out. In Spain, you’ll often see families attending a match with small children, or rival fans sitting together in the same section. And on big derby days in cities like Valencia, Madrid or Barcelona, you’ll even see couples holding hands while wearing the colors of opposing clubs.

Of course, Spanish fans enjoy the rivalry between their teams as much as anyone else, but there’s a real communal feeling that makes LaLiga matchdays particularly special. Plus, virtually all our teams are based in world-class destinations for culture, tourism, leisure and gastronomy, which makes enjoying LaLiga more than just a 90-minute matchday experience.

SA: How much attention does MLS get in England and Spain?

KEEGAN PIERCE: I’ve been in Europe for nearly 10 years and I’ve seen interest grow considerably in MLS. There’s a real feeling on this side of the Atlantic that something special is happening in North American soccer. Fans and media have taken note of the new stadiums, the continued arrival of top players, as well as the evolution of MLS fan culture and the gameday experience. There’s what I’d call a “healthy curiosity” about soccer’s growth in the U.S. The success of the united bid for the 2026 World Cup has only heightened that interest.

SA: What was your introduction to soccer and what is it about the game that attracted you to pursue a career in soccer?

KEEGAN PIERCE: I was part of the generation of ’94, who fell in love with the sport during the 1994 World Cup. I’d played soccer recreationally growing up in California, but never at a very high level. After finishing a degree in international relations, I worked as a sports journalist in South Korea, and went on to cover professional soccer in the U.S. and Mexico before moving to the broadcasting, digital and comms side with MLS.

I’ve always been a bit of a language nerd, so soccer has also been an amazing vehicle for connecting with other places and cultures. That’s what brought me to do my Master’s degree at a business school in Spain and it’s one of the things I enjoy most about my current role. That idea of being forced outside your comfort zone, culturally and linguistically, is one of the most valuable things a career in this sport can provide you.

Keegan Pierce's Top 5 favorite soccer movies

Take The Ball, Pass The Ball (2018)
The Damned United (2009)
Zidane, A 21st Century Portrait (2006)
Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos (2006)
Chivas USA: Sí, se puede (2005)

SA: You were communications director for Chivas USA from 2004-2009. It seemed like a promising idea. What's your view on why it didn't end up working?

KEEGAN PIERCE: I was with Chivas USA for the club’s first five seasons in MLS. It’s easy to forget, but there was real excitement about the team when it first entered the league, the idea that Chivas USA was offering something that had never been seen before in MLS. Those early years had some positive milestones. From 2006 onward, we qualified for the playoffs for four straight years and played some of the best soccer in the league. Still, I think there was a lack of consensus about what Chivas USA wanted to be, both on and off the field, and that ended up alienating a lot of key stakeholders along the way.

SA: Do you think that despite Chivas USA failing, there were positives about the venture for MLS?

KEEGAN PIERCE: For me, it’s amazing to look the number of people involved in Chivas USA, from the soccer side as well as the business side, who have gone on to do really interesting things. You’ve got ex-Chivas USA folks who’ve managed clubs, leagues or federations in Europe, Mexico, the U.S. and Canada, who’ve developed successful careers as broadcasters, sometimes in more than one language, or who contribute to professional soccer’s growth and development on the business side. The common thread in all these “Made in Chivas USA” stories is a group of individuals who felt connected to this unique, cross-cultural project that pushed the boundaries of what was expected of an MLS team at the time.

SA: What did you learn from your Chivas USA experience that was valuable for your current work?

KEEGAN PIERCE: My years at Chivas USA were an amazing way to start a career working on the team side of the business. The number of cross-cultural challenges you faced each day, understanding how different situations or narratives play to different audiences, both internally and externally, or simply learning how to manage inside a changing environment. Those are all things I definitely carry with me.

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