Gerard Piqué’s Kings League Has Seen Soccer’s Future

Gerard Piqué has always been an ideas guy. He has, at various times, had ideas about industries as disconnected as isotonic sports drinks and international tennis tournaments. He has invested in the sunglasses business and the cellphone video game industry. He has dabbled in media rights and soccer team ownership and organic burgers.

For a long time, Piqué did all of that while also being one of the standout soccer players of his generation, a cornerstone on a series of Barcelona squads that harvested glory in industrial quantities and a key component on a Spanish national team that won a World Cup and a European Championship. Excelling at soccer, though, was never enough.

“One of the first things he said to me was that he had finished training by 12,” said Nicolas Julia, the founder of the digital sports platform Sorare. “Some of his teammates liked to play video games. Some were happy hanging out with their families. He loved to go to the office and build something.”

He was driven to do so, those who have worked with him say, because he knew that soccer would not last forever. “I think he saw a lot of his teammates retire and have nothing to do,” said Javier Alonso, a former colleague. “They were only 35 but had no real life except eating in nice restaurants and playing padel. He did not want that.”

Piqué was well suited to his side hustle. He is not, by all accounts, much given to sleep. He is a natural networker, a frequent and instinctive schmoozer. His decade-long relationship with the pop singer Shakira gave him a profile outside sports. He has a mind one associate described with the Spanish word “inquieto”: restless, curious, perhaps just a touch easily distracted. He is far more flexible than might be expected of someone so famous, Alonso said, adding, “He is happy to listen to experts.”

Indeed, Piqué found his side career so rewarding that late last year he decided to bring it front and center. A couple of weeks before the start of the World Cup, he declared Barcelona’s next game would be his last. Business had “never been an afterthought for him,” Julia said. Now, he wanted to go all in.

Rather than fit his work around his training schedule, Piqué now devotes much of his time to Kosmos, the investment vehicle he established in 2018 with the help of capital from Hiroshi Mikitani, the founder of the Japanese e-commerce giant Rakuten, a former Barcelona shirt sponsor.

He had used it to invest in areas “he understands the most,” as Julia put it, usually at the intersection of sports and technology. There was a production arm, focused largely on sports documentaries, and an athlete management wing. He had set up an e-sports team and taken over the running of F.C. Andorra, a minor league soccer club in Spain.

There have been successes: Sorare has grown exponentially since his investment; F.C. Andorra has been promoted to Spain’s second tier for the first time; and Koi, his e-sports franchise, has become a major player.

His two biggest plays, though, have been wreathed in controversy. In 2020, Kosmos helped arrange a deal to stage the Spanish Super Cup in Saudi Arabia. When it emerged that Piqué, then an active player, had reportedly received a $25.9 million commission, both he and the Spanish soccer federation had to insist there was nothing illegal about the arrangement.

Then, this year, the International Tennis Federation prematurely ended his most valuable, high-profile project: a $3 billion, 25-year deal with Kosmos, signed in 2018, to turn the Davis Cup into a World Cup-style event. Both sides have subsequently threatened to sue the other.

Those setbacks, though, have not discouraged Piqué. As Alonso, a former chief executive of the company, once said of Kosmos: “What we do here is Gerard dreams, and we try to make those dreams a reality.” His latest dream is an ambitious one. Piqué wants to take the game that made him a star, and make it better.

The future of soccer appeared to Piqué while he was on his way to lunch. Not so much the fine details: the dodgeball-style kickoffs, the secret weapons and the guest stars disguised by lucha libre masks all came later. But by the time he had finished his 15-minute walk from his office in Barcelona to the restaurant, the big picture was clear in his mind.

Soccer’s central problem, as Piqué diagnosed it, was this: For an audience raised on a diet of bite-size content and guided by the instant satisfaction algorithms of YouTube and Twitch and TikTok, 90 minutes is actually quite a long time.

The traditional soccer game, he decided, contains far too many opportunities for eyes to wander: throw-ins, say, or teams getting their marking schemes right during corners. Younger viewers, Piqué was convinced, would not stand for that. The sport he had always loved would have to adapt.

How? He and Oriol Querol, the chief executive of Kosmos, spitballed ideas on their lunchtime stroll. Soccer should be shorter, for one. It had to minimize the natural pauses, or find a way to fill them. It had to copy and adopt the rhythms and features of video games and streaming and reality television to meet the viewers in their natural habitat.

By the time Piqué and Querol arrived for lunch, they had the outline of an idea. Within a few months, it would have a form: the Kings League, a seven-a-side competition staged in an indoor arena in Barcelona. Its dozen teams are largely made up of former players, and owned and run by some of the country’s most prominent streamers.

By the metrics Piqué, Querol and their colleagues care about, it has been an overwhelming success. It accrued some 238 million views on TikTok in January — more, Querol pointed out, than all of Europe’s traditional leagues combined. More than two million people watched some or all of a single round of games at the end of February on Twitch, TikTok and YouTube.

Its Final Four-style playoffs, held on March 26, took place in the considerably grander surrounds of Camp Nou, the stadium where Piqué spent 14 years as a cornerstone of an all-conquering Barcelona team. The steep stands were packed with 92,000 ticket-buying fans.

That popularity has not been universally welcomed. Javier Tebas, the president of La Liga, has been the most prominent, outspoken critic. The Kings League, he has said, is not a serious rival to his competition. It is just a “circus,” he contends, filled with “streamers dressed up like clowns.”

Piqué has been unmoved. The traditional “product of soccer is outdated,” he said in response to Tebas. It is in desperate need of “more stimulating rules” to attract and engage a new generation of fans. He knew as he went to lunch that soccer had to change. The Kings League is his attempt to change it.

At the turn of the year, a few months after their relationship ended, Shakira released a song that contained a number of extremely thinly veiled critiques of Piqué. The most barbed centered on his apparent infidelity. In one line, the singer accused him of trading “a Ferrari for a Twingo.”

A couple of days after the song came out, with his nascent competition still aggravating all the right people, Piqué duly turned up at the league’s headquarters in Barcelona at the wheel of a tiny white Renault Twingo. As he climbed, a little uneasily, out of the car, he grinned at the handful of photographers waiting for him. His smile betrayed a confidence that his joke would land.

The move was typical of the marketing strategy he adopted for the first season of the Kings League. He was not necessarily above turning his personal life into a promotional tool if it might generate interest: In reference to another line in the same song, suggesting he had swapped a “Rolex for a Casio,” he would later claim (sarcastically) that the Japanese watchmaker had come on board as a sponsor.

He was happy to stoke controversy, too, even if it acted as an open invitation to the league’s critics. In an early round of games, one team featured a mystery player, clad in a mask to hide his identity and registered only as Enigma. The player was, the Kings League let it be known, currently employed by a team in La Liga. (This was not strictly true.) The infamy was worth it for the intrigue.

Those confected dramas might seem to bear out Tebas’s assessment of the Kings League as a circus, one that is not so much a pioneering vision of the future as a veterans’ seven-a-side league garlanded by novelties and promoted with gimmicks.

Its evident popularity, though, warrants greater reflection. It has, as the sight of the heaving stands of Camp Nou made clear, found an audience. Much of that can be attributed, of course, to the presence not only of Piqué, Sergio Agüero and Iker Casillas, all of whom serve as team presidents, but also the likes of Ibai Llanos, the Spanish streamer, and Gerard Romero, a wildly popular online soccer journalist.

“The streamers were the key,” Querol said. “You can make a case that Ibai is the most famous person in Spain now.”

Viewers who have tuned in to see them, though, have at the very least not been deterred by the “more stimulating rules,” drawn from a wide array of sources, that Piqué and his colleagues believe are vital for soccer to continue to flourish.

The concept of a player draft comes directly from American sports. Others are more esoteric: Kings League kickoffs, which feature both teams charging en masse for the ball, are drawn from water polo, and it has revived an approach to penalties last seen in Major League Soccer in the 1990s. (It is telling that one feature inherited from old-school soccer is a postseason transfer market: Piqué and Kosmos have identified that nobody is bored of transfer rumors.)

“We took some things from e-sports, too,” said Querol, citing not only the decision to stream everything before, during and after games, but also a “total access” approach in which viewers can hear what referees and players are saying.

“Then we took things like each team having a secret weapon in each game, something they can use whenever they think it might have the most impact, whether it is a penalty or an extra player, from video games,” Querol added. “But none of it is static. It’s constant reflection. We change whatever we can change.”

That process continued through the season. When Querol and his team noticed that games tended to drift at the end of the first half, they started cutting the number of players on the field at that precise moment. Anything, in other words, to keep the audience on its toes, to ensure that something was happening, to stop the eye from drifting and the thumb from scrolling.

“It is sport,” Querol said. “It wouldn’t work if the soccer was not of a high standard. That is really important.” But that is not the only consideration. In his view, as in Piqué’s, soccer cannot just be soccer anymore. “The priority,” he said, “has to be the spectacle.”

That, perhaps, is the point that all those critics who dismissed the Kings League have missed. It may well be a circus. But Piqué might respond that there is nothing wrong with being a circus. Circuses are popular. They draw a crowd, they hold the gaze, because nobody is ever quite sure what is coming next.

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