The U.S.A. Could (And Should) Host Another World Cup

chile-copa_2706getty_875Last night the Copa America Centenario came to a close with Chile defeating Argentina in a penalty shootout after a 0-0 draw. This was almost an exact replica of Copa America 2015 when Chile defeated Argentina in a penalty shootout after a 0-0 draw.  The difference? The United States does it bigger, and does it better.

The predominately Argentine attendance last night in East Rutherford, New Jersey was reportedly over 82,000, a New Jersey soccer record. This comes on the heels of last week’s impressive crowd at the USA vs. Argentina semifinal in Houston, Texas that was reportedly over 70,000, a Houston soccer record.  For a country that has played host in the past to Pele, Ronaldinho, and David Beckham, there are many reasons for tournament organizers to be pleased right now.

The amount of records broken by this edition of Copa America cannot be ignored.  After last night’s final, the accumulated attendance of the 32 games played was just over 1.5 million, shattering a record held for over 25 years by over 350,000. In addition, the average attendance was nearly 46,000 fans per game, topping 5 of the last 9 World Cups (excluding the USA hosted World Cup in 1994).  Average attendance even topped the past 6 European championships despite an average ticket price of just over $100.  Using just attendance alone as a measuring stick, the U.S. has raised the bar as a host.

In terms of TV ratings, even more records were broken.  Not including the final, the first 30 matches of the Copa America Centenario drew over 100 million viewers in the U.S. from the combined broadcasts of Univision and Fox networks.  Univision reported that ratings for the tournament have been higher than average ratings for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.  The USA vs. Argentina semifinal even drew 3.29 million viewers on Fox Sports 1, a network soccer record.  In terms of reach, the tournament has been broadcast in 160 countries, and 1.5 billion viewers worldwide. While the days until MLS reaches 1.5 billion viewers are still a long way off, competitive international soccer in the US has consistently proven to be record draw since the ’90s.

In short, the Copa America Centenario achieved every feat it intended and then some.  As Sunil Gulati accurately concluded, the United States Soccer Federation successfully proved that this country has the infrastructure, management system, and consumer base to thrive as an international soccer tournament host.  In many ways, the United States has everything that Brazil is missing for the Rio Olympics in less than two months.  Even with all the bribery and scandals that surround FIFA, it would be incredibly hard to avoid the potential money-making machine that the United States just displayed for a memorable, drama-filled, and lucrative three weeks.

REFERENCES

http://www.pressherald.com/2016/06/24/copa-america-has-been-successful-with-attendance-tv-ratings/

http://www.forbes.com/sites/sergeiklebnikov/2016/06/26/successful-copa-america-2016-smashes-records/#44766b89734b

http://www.latimes.com/sports/soccer/la-sp-copa-us-argentina-tv-ratings-20160622-snap-story.html

http://www.news18.com/footballnext/news/lionel-messi-misses-penalty-as-chile-win-copa-america-2016-title-1262520.html

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Viewing the Copa Half-Full for U.S. Soccer

usa vs argLast night, we witnessed Lionel Messi and Argentina embarrass the U.S. Men’s National Team, 4-0 on its home turf in Houston, Texas in the semifinals of the Copa America Centenario. Without debate, it was the biggest game for the USMNT since its 2-1 extra time defeat to Belgium in the 2014 World Cup. Unfortunately, there appeared to be a lot less positive takeaways this time around. But if we dig really hard, here is what we can find:

First off, nearly 71,000 fans filled NRG Stadium in Houston on a Tuesday night to watch soccer.  According to MLSSoccer.com, that was a Houston soccer record.  On top of that, they came to cheer on a U.S team of predominately MLS players face off against the top ranked international team in the world.  Everybody likes an underdog story and without having to market the game too vigorously, that is exactly how the bracket played this one out.  Sure, a home team win would have been nice, but we can’t have everything we want.

Next, the future pool of U.S. players includes some potentially marketable stories.  When the game was already lost, we saw Christian Pulisic from Hershey, Pennsylvania substituted in to shake up the tempo.   Even though the U.S. finished without a shot on goal, the only opportunities that even made it close to the Argentina penalty box all came from the American wunderkind.  He may not even come close to Messi’s talents, but Messi is a once in a generation player.  Pulisic is the next best thing, already rising as a star in German soccer with Borrusia Dortmund, considered levels above American soccer.  There were reports that he had just went to his prom last week.  We also saw Darlington Nagbe, the Portland Timbers star from Liberia who became a U.S. citizen in 2015 to earn his shot at international glory, enter the game late in the second half to generate offense.  One of the reasons why the Olympics earn such excellent TV ratings  are the feel-good story lines of young American athletes triumphing over obstacles to reach some specialized sporting events that most average people could not care less about.

In many ways, the U.S. Men’s National Team has its own stories to draw interest. On top of Pulisic and Nagbe, there’s Clint Dempsey, the old but reliable scoring and rapping talent from Texas.  Even more intriguing, backup goalkeeper Tim Howard’s legendary performance against Belgium two years ago has kept him on the map. His name was brought up almost as much as head coach Klinsmann on Twitter after the score was 3-0 on Tuesday.

Third, while this has been considered an official Copa America, it’s not a typical Copa America.  The tournament is usually held every two years, but in order to create this anniversary edition (and to lure the event outside of South America) the Centenario was held this year, 2016, a quick year after the last official Copa America in 2015.  If you throw in the corruption scandal that had to be sorted out beforehand, it almost makes the whole tournament seem entirely meaningless (but probably not).

In the aftermath of the game, U.S Soccer President Sunil Gulati, comparing the U.S. to national soccer teams like Argentina said, “we have a long way to go.”  But that isn’t necessarily true.  If the US wins the third place game on Saturday night in Phoenix, it will be the best finish by the U.S. in Copa America history.  Out of the eight invitee nations outside of South America that have ever competed in the tournament, none have ever finished higher than second place.  Maybe our expectations are too high.  Maybe in a country used to dominating all sports, not being the best at one is just unacceptable.  If we wait until we’re the best international team in the world before soccer takes off in the U.S, then we truly have a long way to go.  But from a global perspective, the USMNT has plenty of reasons to hold their chins up high.

And finally, at least it wasn’t 7-0 like Mexico.

America’s Oldest Cup Needs an Upgrade

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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.

 

Empty Seats at Copa America

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This month, soccer is available to the average American soccer fan virtually all parts of the day with three European Cup games on in the morning and afternoon capped off by two Copa America games at night. It’s beautiful isn’t it? It makes you appreciate the ‘worldly’ aspect of the game. But does it provide too much convenience to the average fan? So much so that he or she would not get up off the couch and see a game in person?

As the first round of Copa America comes to a close tonight, and as the first round of Euro 2016 begins, a bit of an alarming trend has become apparent in the stands on this side of the pond. A significant number of seats are empty.

The story lines of the first round were not the problem. We witnessed a United States team with little expectations finish at the top of Group A. Colombia was handed a stunning 3-2 loss to Costa Rica setting up a potential matchup with a Brazil team that was even more stunned by a controversial goal at the hands of upstart Peru to be sent home after one measly round. We saw the spirited frustration of Luis Suarez as he could only watch from the sidelines as his countrymen from Uruguay would exit this tournament early as well. And of course, we saw Lionel Messi dazzle in the limelight with a hat trick despite entering the game as a second half substitute. In most of these cases, you could not ask for a better sequence of events.

The real problem could be a combination of factors. One could be the low expectations for this US team. In the past quarter century, the US has given the nation pride with spirited performances in the World Cups in South Africa and Brazil, possibly reaching a plateau with the heartfelt performance of Tim Howard against Belgium in the World Cup knockout round in 2014. But since 2014 most of the news surrounding the national team has been negative. They finished in fourth place on their home turf in the 2015 Gold Cup, a tournament they usually dominate. Small Caribbean countries like Jamaica and Haiti were no longer easy matchups; the island nations were highly competitive, sometimes even better. The US had gradually ascended into a North American juggernaut from 1990 to 2014. Suddenly, all progress appeared to be lost. But here we are in 2016, and as usual, head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has somehow lit a fire under this team again at the most unexpected moment.

Another factor could be the lack of star power. Before Brazil flamed out of the tournament in spectacular fashion, they were playing without the face of the squad, Neymar. Talented striker, and habitual opposition biter, Luis Suarez was injured or listed as injured in all three matches for Uruguay. Even Argentine sensation Lionel Messi was used as a substitute rather than a starter due to an injury he sustained before the tournament. You could call it bad timing, but without the stars to advertise, smaller nations like Panama, Haiti, and Venezuela have never been crowd pleasers. Unfortunately, Brazil and Uruguay’s eliminations in the group stages could continue to have an adverse attendance in the more meaningful knockout round matches.

A third factor could be these over-sized stadiums hosting games. The last Copa America in Chile averaged around 25,000 fans per game, and the previous Copa America in Argentina averaged just under 35,000 fans per game. After 20 games in this year’s tournament, the US average is significantly higher at just above 40,000, with some clear outliers. Despite statistically better turnouts, hosting games in 70,000 to 80,000 seat stadiums makes for a poor aesthetic.

And finally, the biggest factor could be TV coverage. Univision is reportedy averaging 2.8 million viewers per game while Fox Sports 1 is averaging just over 800,000 viewers per game. According to Nielsen Media Research, over 2 million viewers watched the US defeat Paraguay 1-0 to advance to the next round, the most watched men’s soccer match in Fox Sports One history. Yet on TV, you could see whole swathes of sections empty in the upper tiers of Lincoln Financial Field.

In all United States sporting events, going to the game has been marketed as an experience. An experience unlike sitting at home and watching on your TV. Instead of just seeing two century long rivals face off in a battle for glory, you could feel it. Live it. But at what cost?

The price of a TV subscription is relatively low compared to the price of a premium Copa America ticket. Currently on Stubhub, the cheapest ticket to the Copa America Centenario Final in East Rutherford, NJ two weeks from now is just over $300. For almost half that price, you could enjoy a month’s subscription to the cable provider of your choice with access to every game of the tournament on your TV, on your tablet, on your computer, and on your mobile phone at all times of day, alone or with friends and family in the comfortable confines of your home. With the right sound system, and with the right TV, the experience at home could be extravagant on its own. And with all the freedom available to you of watching the game anytime, anywhere, why on Earth would you trek through traffic and parking attendants to see Jamaica play Uruguay?

The organizers of this tournament have learned some unfortunate new realities about soccer in America. Just like with regular television, fans have choice now. The capacity crowds of the 1994 World Cup didn’t have a smartphone and live stream of the event in prime-time. The skeptical “wow me” fans of 2016 do. Unless Mexico plays the US in the final, the remaining tickets at MetLife Stadium have a poor chance of being sold at face value. Welcome to the new age of international soccer in America.

REFERENCES
http://www.starsandstripesfc.com/2016/6/13/11920118/usa-paraguay-copa-america-match-breaks-tv-viewing-record

Univision leading the way in Copa America TV ratings with FOX Sports trailing behind

http://www.newsy.com/videos/don-t-get-too-worried-about-attendance-at-the-copa-america/
http://www.concordmonitor.com/Copa-America-soccer-attendance-2828093

 

What Can Zlatan Do For You?

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He has over 3.5 million Twitter fans.  He has over 14 million Instagram followers. Before he played his last game with PSG at Parc de Princes, he had this to say:

“I came like a king, left like a legend.”

Amazingly, this statement is quite accurate.  The club president even announced plans to name a stand after him upon his retirement. He is arguably the most interesting man in the world. In soccer, at least.  Oozing of Scandinavian confidence, and scoring goals like there is no tomorrow, the chance of having this publicity machine play on American soil should cause casual soccer fans to rejoice.  But what else could Zlatan moving to the U.S. possibly do to change the game here?

Major League Soccer could finally have it’s own counterpart to LeBron’s coverage on ESPN.  AND to top it off, he’s European.  Okay sure, you may be thinking so what? He has a reputation, a history of being temperamental off-field, an ego the size of Greenland, and his hair is an ever-changing piece of modern art.  Big deal, David Beckham fit most of those criteria and soccer still isn’t America’s favorite sport.  Very true.  But let’s take a look at the stats. David Beckham could kick a set piece like no other, and off the field he was a tabloid sensation.  But in his 6 seasons in MLS, he scored 18 goals, averaging just 3 goals a season.  Zlatan is a different story.  He isn’t just exciting to watch on set pieces.  This past season with PSG in league play, he scored 38 goals in 31 games.  He’s 34 years old.  While many could say MLS has held on to its less than admirable reputation as a retirement league, it’s hard to deny that Zlatan still has the right stuff to be considered one of the best in the world.

He’s played with Barcelona, Inter, Juventus, PSG, and now…Philadelphia? Probably not, especially if the man with an ego has conditions to coming here.  Early reports have reported that he would be coming to the LA Galaxy, as most stars from Europe appear to do, yet the Galaxy’s current stock of talent seems to have reached its limit, financially at least.  The team already has the maximum number of Designated Players allowed, so unless MLS somehow changes the rules to allow the Galaxy to become to American soccer what Glasgow Celtic is to Scotland, it seems another destination could be necessary if Zlatan is still interested in coming to America on the next plane.

How about New York? No, not New York City FC, they have already reached the maximum amount of Designated Players as well with Andrea Pirlo, Frank Lampard, and David Villa filling up plenty of cap space.  There is a team across the river with quite a bit less star power that could use a boost in the standings at the moment.

Yes, the Red Bulls have undergone a thorough restructuring process that most notably involved a philosophy shift from attracting aging European stars to building off of younger, more physical, homegrown talent.  Yes, this shift worked wonders last year as the Red Bulls coasted to a first place regular season finish despite an early exit from the playoffs. However, 11 games into the current season, the Red Bulls sit in 8th place out of 10 teams in the Eastern Conference, scoring a total of 13 goals in those 11 games.  Who has a reputation of scoring an unfathomable amount of goals?

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The next step in the progress of MLS is to get more people to watch games on TV.  This guy is quality television.  Who could possibly be a better draw for soccer ratings in the U.S? Mario Balotelli, maybe.

 

REFERENCES

http://www.espnfc.us/story/2871792/zlatan-ibrahimovic-confirms-paris-saint-germain-exit-this-summer

http://www.espnfc.us/paris-saint-germain/story/2873938/psg-to-honour-zlatan-ibrahimovic-with-parc-des-princes-stand-in-his-name

https://www.theguardian.com/football/blog/2016/may/16/major-league-soccer-zlatan-ibrahimovic-la-galaxy

 

 

MLS to St. Louis?

USATSI_7274155Many consider it to be the historic soccer capital of America.  What some still consider the greatest game ever played by the U.S Men’s National Team, 5 of the 11 starting players on the 1950 FIFA World Cup team that stunned powerhouse England were from St. Louis.  Since that time, some of the greatest players in U.S. soccer history have either hailed from St. Louis are played college soccer in St. Louis such as Taylor Twellman, Pat Noonan, Brian McBride, and Tim Ream.  When the U.S. Open Cup was in its infant stages, St. Louis teams generated the most success, starting with a team named Ben Millers winning the championship in 1920.  This city clearly has a rich soccer history.  But can it sustain an MLS team?

Since the news of the Rams moving to Los Angeles, and the NFL abandoning St. Louis a second time (see the Arizona Cardinals)  the MLS has declared a renewed interest in bringing an expansion franchise to the area.  Last week, Commissioner Don Garber met with St. Louis Sports Commission Chairman Dave Peacock to continue a dialogue. The two of them had reportedly met ten years ago to have the same conversation, but as we can see, there is currently no Major League Soccer team in St. Louis.

St. Louis has had many iterations of professional soccer in the past.  Besides the semi-pro teams that emerged victorious in the early years of the U.S. Open Cup during the ’20s and ’30s, perhaps the most prominent team was the St. Louis Stars of NASL fan during the ’70s.  Ironically, that team moved to LA too. There was also an indoor soccer team called the St. Louis Steamers that averaged almost 12,000 fans per game for the better part of the ’80s. While none of these franchises had a happy ending, the departure of an NFL team leaves a gaping hole to be filled in the sports landscape of the city.

As many news outlets have been reiterating, there are usually three factors for bringing an MLS team to a city.  1) An already present fanbase  2) A viable ownership group  3) A viable (preferably downtown) stadium site with easy access for fans.  One of the reasons that talks to bring a team to St. Louis in the past may have stalled could have been the issue of a viable stadium site.  But now that the Rams have flown away to the West Coast,  a beautiful, riverfront stadium site suddenly appears within grasp.  The MLS appears to be so interested in this site, that the St.Louis Dispatch has even reported that the league has begun gathering potential owners.  Other markets have already expressed their vehement interest in a franchise such as Sacramento, San Antonio, and San Diego, but if the MLS is truly planning to expand to 28 teams by 2020, perhaps all these markets can make their way into the fold.

Short of a definite answer, it appears MLS is coming to St. Louis within the next five years.  The NFL leaving AGAIN is the perfect opportunity for MLS to capitalize on a market that only has baseball to watch in the summer and hockey in the winter months.  The fanbase appears to already be in place, with 43,000 fans seeing a USMNT World Cup Qualifier in Busch Stadium, a minor league team starting play last year in the USL, and if the site deal can be closed soon (not like the catastrophe that happened with NYCFC in Flushing) this deal to move into the 21st largest media market in America is too good to pass up.

 

REFERENCES

http://www.espnfc.us/major-league-soccer/story/2801606/mls-very-focused-on-expanding-to-st-louis-don-garber

http://www.mlssoccer.com/post/2014/05/30/building-soccer-pyramid-success-finally-cards-historic-st-louis

http://saintlouisfc.com/history

 

A Fresh Start

cropped-site_iconIn Spanish, “chivas” means goats.  Quite literally, Chivas USA was the goat of MLS during its brief existence.  Consistently last in attendance, the fledgling franchise was always the ugly stepbrother of the league’s crown jewel, centerpiece, and innovative pioneer, the LA Galaxy.  Now a new era begins for a replacement franchise that has already recaptured many members of the small but proud Chivas USA fanbase.  This past week, the new team, Los Angeles Football Club, unveiled its first ever logo and the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.  The team even revealed a surprising co-owner with celebrity status when Will Ferrell crashed the stage.  On paper, things are looking very bright for the new LA team.  But when the team plays its first competitive game in 2017, will the atmosphere still be so rosy?

Continue reading “A Fresh Start”