Bryan Ar­men Gra­ham

Tour­na­ment, now in its fifth sum­mer, sells out sta­di­ums across Amer­ica

The Irish Times - Monday - Sport - - Soccer -

On Sat­ur­day night a sell­out crowd of 66,014 spec­ta­tors footed be­tween $240 (£183) and $3,500 (£2,665) to watch a pre-sea­son friendly be­tween Real Madrid and Barcelona at Mi­ami’s Hard Rock Sta­dium, the pièce de ré­sis­tance of the two-week sum­mer ex­hi­bi­tion tour fea­tur­ing high-pro­file Euro­pean clubs known as the In­ter­na­tional Cham­pi­ons Cup.

The rights holder ESPN de­liv­ered the type of blan­ket cover­age more typ­i­cal of a Su­per Bowl or World Cup fi­nal, com­mit­ting no fewer than 25 on-air per­son­al­i­ties to south Florida and broad­cast­ing live on lo­ca­tion through­out the week.

This is to say noth­ing of the 35,728 fans who paid $20 to $30 – plus park­ing – to watch both clubs’ train­ing ses­sions on Fri­day night.

The breath­less ma­nia sur­round­ing the so-called Sun­shine State Clásico – the first meet­ing be­tween the two Span­ish arch-ri­vals to take place out­side Europe in 35 years – was hardly an out­lier. Be­hold the eye-pop­ping at­ten­dance fig­ures in the past fort­night to watch clubs from thou­sands of miles away work off their off­sea­son cob­webs: 65,109 for Real Madrid v Manch­ester United at Levi’s Sta­dium in Santa Clara; 67,401 for the first Manch­ester derby off English soil at Hous­ton’s NRG Sta­dium; 82,104 for Barcelona v Ju­ven­tus at MetLife Sta­dium out­side New York – bet­ter than the av­er­age at­ten­dance of all but one Na­tional Foot­ball League team dur­ing the 2016 sea­son.

This is heady stuff in a na­tion with an al­leged hered­i­tary aver­sion to the world’s most pop­u­lar sport.

For decades Amer­i­cans have been drilled for the day, al­ways just around the cor­ner, when soc­cer would grad­u­ate from cult in­ter­est buried in the agate type of news­pa­per sports sec­tions to the main­stream realm of base­ball, foot­ball, bas­ket­ball and ice hockey: the tra­di­tional ma­jor leagues that com­prise the na­tional sport­ing con­ver­sa­tion. First it was the North Amer­i­can Soc­cer League of the 1970s that au­gured the shift. Then the 1994 World Cup, the first in the US. And any num­ber of plot points in be­tween.

But if the en­thu­si­as­tic pub­lic re­sponse to th­ese off-sea­son friendlies is any in­di­ca­tion, that day is here.

Grown big­ger

Th­ese ex­hi­bi­tions, brought to­gether in a loosely or­gan­ised tour­na­ment for­mat span­ning 11 days and 12 venues, have only grown big­ger and more nu­mer­ous in re­cent years.

The man be­hind the en­ter­prise is the soc­cer pro­moter Char­lie Stil­li­tano, who has made a cot­tage in­dus­try of or­gan­is­ing the pre-sea­son tours of the world’s top clubs over the past decade and a half. The com­pa­nies have gone through dif- fer­ent fi­nan­cial back­ers and names – re­mem­ber the Cham­pi­onsWorld or the World Foot­ball Chal­lenge? – but the con­stant has been Stil­li­tano, the for­mer Prince­ton soc­cer cap­tain and gen­eral man­ager of Ma­jor League Soc­cer’s New York/ New Jersey MetroS­tars, who has fi­nally dis­cov­ered his call­ing as a deal­maker and power bro­ker.

To­day Stil­li­tano serves as chair­man of the In­ter­na­tional Cham­pi­ons Cup, se­duc­ing Euro­pean clubs on the prom­ise of fer­tile com­mer­cial soil – and ap­pear­ance fees re­port­edly in the $25m range – while selling Amer­i­can sports fans on the al­lure of the megawatt stars and top-flight soc­cer that MLS can­not of­fer. The ICC is in its fifth sum­mer and, re­port­edly, a prof­itable en­ter­prise af­ter op­er­at­ing in the red pre­vi­ously.

The grad­ual suc­cess of th­ese ex­hi­bi­tions can be chalked up to a cou­ple of fac­tors. First, the an­nual mid­sum­mer jaunt is sched­uled dur­ing the bad­lands of the Amer­i­can sport­ing cal­en­dar. The NBA and NHL have wrapped up months ago and the NFL and col­lege foot­ball are only just start­ing train­ing camp, leav­ing only mid-sea­son base­ball on the radar. That and the MLS, which c a n’ t be thrilled about shar­ing the spot­light with its Euro­pean brethren as it strug­gles for a foothold in its own do­mes­tic mar­ket.

Sec­ond, and per­haps more cru­cially, the ICC sells their English and Span­ish me­dia rights in a sin­gle pack­age, a rar­ity in a trade that typ­i­cally hawks them in separately in or­der to max­imise value. The bilin­gual pack­age gives ESPN a chance to own a ma­jor US soc­cer event in both lan­guages.

Ap­petite

For mar­ket­ing pur­poses the In­ter­na­tional Cham­pi­ons Cup bris­tles at the char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion of th­ese matches as friendlies or ex­hi­bi­tions. Still, the fact

Barcelona drew first blood against Real Madrid ahead of the new sea­son with a 3-2 vic­tory in a pul­sat­ing Cla­sico friendly on Sat­ur­day in Mi­ami.

Lionel Messi opened the scor­ing af­ter just three min­utes, fir­ing home with the help of a de­flec­tion, be­fore Ivan Rakitic dou­bled the lead with a pow­er­ful drive.

Amer­i­cans are turn­ing out in vast num­bers to watch glo­ri­fied scrim­mages is proof there’s an ap­petite for elite soc­cer – from the coastal elites to the heart of Texas. This is noth­ing like the NFL’s on­go­ing foray with reg­u­lar-sea­son games in Lon­don. Yes, the star play­ers are con­trac­tu­ally obliged to play a des­ig­nated num­ber of min­utes in ICC matches. But un­lim­ited sub­sti­tu­tions can mean an en­tire half (or more) watch­ing sec­ond- or third-team play­ers fight for their spots. And the re­sults them­selves: they don’t count in the stand­ings.

But that has not stopped the peo­ple from turn­ing out in droves, even dur­ing a tour that on four oc­ca­sions went head-to-head with Gold Cup knock­out stage matches, con­flicts that di­rectly un­der­cut a cru­cial source of fundrais­ing for Concacaf, which funds age-group cham­pi­onships and de­vel­op­ment pro­grams in 41 mem­ber coun­tries. But have we reached a point of over­sat­u­ra­tion? Might the trend fi­nally have plateaued?

“The US is a large mar­ket for sport in gen­eral and soc­cer specif­i­cally,” Concacaf’s gen­eral sec­re­tary, Philippe Mog­gio, said in a state­ment last week. “The in­ter­est we see for ex­hi­bi­tion matches and other friendly games demon­strates the tremen­dous – and grow­ing – over­all de­mand for soc­cer in this coun­try.”

The clos­ing match of this year’s ICC took place last night when Roma faced Ju­ven­tus at Gil­lette Sta­dium, home of the Su­per Bowl cham­pion New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots. MLS will no doubt be happy to be re­lieved of the com­pe­ti­tion, but whether a ris­ing tide truly lifts all boats – and doesn’t merely fill the cof­fers of al­ready out­ra­geously rich su­per­clubs – re­mains to be seen.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: HEC­TOR RETAMAL/AFP/GETTY IM­AGES

A crowd of 66,014 watched Real Madrid and Barcelona in their In­ter­na­tional Cham­pi­ons Cup match at Hard Rock Sta­dium in Mi­ami.

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