America’s Oldest Cup Needs an Upgrade

England has the F.A. Cup and the Capital One Cup. Germany has the DFB-Pokal. Italy has the Coppa Italia. The United States has…the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. It may be a mouthful, but as the only American cup competition still running since 1914, it’s the oldest tournament in the American sports landscape. But year after year with little change, the question still arises: why isn’t the U.S Open Cup a bigger deal?

Last night concluded the fourth round of US Open Cup action and there were some exciting match-ups, albeit sparse crowds. In perhaps the most highly attended game, the New York Cosmos of NASL defeated New York City FC of MLS for the second straight year in front of nearly 7,000 fans at Fordham University in the Bronx. Other games of note involved the Houston Dynamo (MLS) defeating San Antonio FC (USL, third division) in front of just under 6,000 fans, FC Dallas (MLS) defeating Oklahoma City Energy FC (USL) in a stadium with a capacity of 1,500 that did not appear full, and Orlando City FC (MLS) defeating Jacksonville Armada (NASL) in front of a capacity crowd of 2,158 fans in Jacksonville. All in all, these attendance figures aren’t exactly a magnet for attracting sponsors.

But more sponsorship just might be the injection of life that this tournament needs. If we look across the pond, England’s storied F.A. Cup has been around since 1871, so virtually everyone in the country knows about it and adding a name brand to the name would do no good. For better or for worse, most people would still call it the F.A. Cup. But the League Cup has only been around since 1960, and that’s why corporate sponsors like Carling and Capital One have attached their names to the tournament over the past decade. Associating a brand with a sporting event is effective when fans describe the event using the brand name. Associating a brand with a sporting event is also an effective way of generating the necessary funds to market the event in the first place. That being said, why not add a naming sponsor to the U.S Open Cup?

Lamar Hunt was one of the founding fathers of Major League Soccer. As long as his name is still engraved on the trophy, he could still be honored. But for marketing purposes, if his name was to be replaced or followed by a sponsor willing to pay a plethora of money for a long-lasting association with one of the most growing team sports in America, the growth of the league that he helped build in life could accelerate after his passing. But first, there has to be a sponsor willing to take the gamble.

In Italy, the Coppa Italia that has been around since 1922 was rebranded as the TIM Cup, after its sponsor, Telecom Italia. For a tournament with such a long, rich history, the chances of it being referred to as Coppa Italia are still higher than Telecom Italia would like. But when a fan sees the TIM logo now, they have a far greater chance of associating the company with soccer.

If that positive association with a brand makes the fan buy the product or service, then both the league and the sponsor can be happy because the sponsorship worked as intended.  When a sponsorship is done right, everybody wins.  Some fans may disapprove of how much commercialism has been injected into the game, but even the most skeptical fans acknowledge that a little commercialism is necessary to pay for the players, the staff, the coaches, and all the moving pieces that make all sports what they have become today.

Overall, a team from MLS that wins the whole event plays an extra five games on top of their league schedule of thirty two games starting in June, and ending in September. The league games usually start at the end of March and end in late November. Instead of an All-Star break, MLS should incorporate two rounds of Open Cup action into that break, and hype up those rounds as must-see TV. The remaining three rounds could mean starting the week before the MLS season in March, and the two weeks at the end of the MLS season in November/December that way the schedule is less forced.  Taking a page out of England’s book, the final could be played in a neutral venue that bids to host the event like the Super Bowl.

In short, there are few steps needed to make the U.S. Open Cup a bigger deal.  First, get a title sponsor. The AT&T or Verizon or Geico U.S. Open Cup would be prime examples. Next, use the money from the title sponsorship agreement to offer the winning team a significant prize, not just the measly $250,000 split that teams currently win. And finally, change the timing of the whole tournament so that the games fit better into the current calendar rather than playing the games on weekdays in small college fields that are difficult to find. Slowly but surely, we just might be able to make the U.S. Open Cup the spectacle it deserves to be.



When Will The U.S. Open Cup Be Taken Seriously?

TUSATSI_7914304_167117624_lowresonight is the U.S. Open Cup, the American equivalent to England’s F.A. Cup, Italy’s Coppa Nazionale, and Spain’s Copa Del Rey. The game is between a team in the thick of an MLS Cup Playoff push, Sporting Kansas City, and a team on the outside looking in, the Philadelphia Union.  If Sporting Kansas City wins this year, it will be their third trophy in four years (U.S Open Cup Champs 2012, and MLS Cup Champs 2013).  If Philadelphia wins tonight, it will be the club’s first piece of hardware in its 6 year history.

This is the 102nd edition of the oldest soccer tournament in the country, and the game will be broadcast on ESPN2 and Univision.  Sporting KC expects a respectable 800 fans to trek to Philadelphia for the game on a Wednesday.  On the flip side, Philadelphia is trying to make up for last year’s loss in the final at the same venue, PPL Park.  The game is a tale of two teams in very different positions, with SKC not only in the playoff hunt, but also at the back end of a very successful rebirth that transformed the once lowly Kansas City Wizards, playing in cavernous Arrowhead Stadium to the very popular Sporting team that plays in the more intimate, often sold-out Sporting Park.  In Philadelphia, while PPL Park has a beautiful view of the Delaware River,  and a passionate fanbase in the Sons of Ben, the team has historically spent very little on star power, leading to a disconnect with fans, but making their second straight U.S. Open Cup Final appearance an impressive feat.

My question is why is this game in the middle of the work week? It’s like American soccer is trying to belittle its own major events.  The Super Bowl is on Sunday for a reason. Everyone is home whether they’re 5, 25, or 75 years old, male or female.  By holding this event at 7 pm in the middle of the week, up against network premieres of many primetime programs, it’s like the U.S. Soccer Federation is asking prospective viewers not to watch.  This mentality needs to change soon, or the U.S. Open Cup will just serve as another example while Premier League soccer gets better ratings in America than American soccer.


Hidden From View: The U.S. Open Cup

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This past Wednesday night in Hempstead, NY on the campus of Hofstra University, almost 11,500 fans packed Shuart Stadium and witnessed the New York Cosmos of (the minor league) NASL upset New York City FC of (the major league) MLS after extra time in a penalty kick shootout.  NYCFC found itself playing on a turf surface designed for college football and a visiting locker room without a tunnel to the pitch, leaving for an awkward walk through the concourse to ogling fans.  Why was a major league soccer team playing in these less than stellar conditions, as have many teams before it?

The U.S. Open Cup is the second oldest continuous tournament in the world, crowning its first champion in 1914.  During that inaugural competition, the Brooklyn Field Club claimed the trophy after defeating Brooklyn Celtic in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.  The tournament has taken place every year since, including the years during World War II, and it includes every single professional soccer team in the country, as well as some amateur clubs.

In America, we love a Cinderella story.  But unfortunately, since Major League Soccer was created, only one minor league soccer team has claimed the trophy and that was the Rochester Raging Rhinos of the now USL (United Soccer League) back in 1999.  Since then, an MLS club has won the trophy every season, including last year’s champion, the Seattle Sounders.  Even more unfortunately, not every MLS team takes the tournament seriously with its final prize winnings of only $250,000 and an automatic place in the CONCACAF Champions League, North America’s weaker counterpart to Europe’s UEFA.

Similar tournaments to the Open Cup with a surprisingly less lengthy history are played each year in European powerhouses such as England, Italy, and France with formidable marketing, excellent TV ratings and sell-out crowds. In contrast, the U.S. Open Cup doesn’t even have an official website.  The, arguably the most extensive website covering the U.S. Open Cup, was created in 2003 by an internet radio show called “Soccer Fanatics Radio Show” hosted by Josh Hakala.  Since then, the U.S. Soccer Federation has incorporated an Open Cup tab to its website, but with few features and typically just game highlights and a bracket of results.  The quickest way for fans to here about the draw for who their teams would play in each round of matches was through a U.S. Open Cup Twitter account.

In today’s society where sports fans are accustomed to real-time scores, extensive TV coverage, and a marketing blitz, it is amazing to see how the U.S. Open Cup is almost a secret kept in hardcore fan circles.  In order to pack the stadium at Hofstra University, the New York Cosmos marketing team had to work in-house to get the message across digital media and radio stations like WFAN in New York that the game was even taking place. The “derby” concept of two New York teams playing each other for the first time in history had to be more emphasized than the intrigue surrounding the century old tournament.

The U.S. Open Cup seems to be a missed opportunity for growing soccer’s success in America.  In a country that views baseball as its pastime, and football as its TV ratings king, the fact that soccer owns the oldest sports competition still played in the U.S. just might blow people’s minds if advertised effectively. Until then, let’s hope for a Cinderella story that can bring the tournament out of the shadows and into the spotlight.