‘Tis the season of summer friendlies

BBVA Compass Stadium

The domestic campaigns of the European club teams have ended, the Champions League has crowned a champion, MLS and NASL are just entering the meat of their season — and the season of summer friendlies is upon us.

Many American fans will have the opportunity to see their favorite European teams up close and in-person this summer. The summer tours of European clubs are very popular with fans and marketing professionals, but less so with players and coaches.

This summer, a number of teams are coming to America. The International Champions Cup, in its third year, will be the top draw. The tournament features champions from across Europe, including Chelsea (Premiere League), Barcelona (La Liga), Benfica (Premeira Liga) and Paris Saint Germain (Ligue One). In addition to the North American games, ICC games will also be played in Australia and Asia. Some of the games feature inter-European rivals, while others feature European clubs against MLS teams.

Last year, the Champions Cup games drew large crowds across the nation. It drew a total of 642,134 fans to watch the 13 matches, an average of 49,395 per match. The final, played between Manchester United and Liverpool, played at Miami’s Sun Life Stadium, drew 51,000 fans, and a game between Manchester United and Real Madrid drew 109,318 to Michigan Stadium.

This year’s North American games are spread among 12 stadiums in the United States and Canada. The ICC recently announced that tickets for the most highly anticipated game, Barcelona versus the Los Angeles Galaxy, to be held at the 92,000-seat Pasadena Rose Bowl, sold out. Although the ticket prices were somewhat high, they all sold in less than two weeks.

“We are excited to announce another sold-out International Champions Cup match,” said Charlie Stillitano, Chairman of Relevent Sports, the event sponsor. “Last year’s match at the Rose Bowl drew more than 84,000 fans, and there will be even more in attendance this year to watch respective league champions FC Barcelona and LA Galaxy compete. The Rose Bowl is one of the most iconic venues in all of the United States and will make for an electric atmosphere on gameday.”

In addition to these marquee matches, many other European teams will be dropping in to play preseason matches against MLS and NASL competition.

And while fans love the matches, marketing executives of the European and American clubs involved are bullish on the value of the games.

In anticipation of her team’s trip to New Zealand last summer, West Ham’s commercial director Felicity Croft said, “It’s a long way to go but definitely worth it. We’ll use the tour to develop our fan base and commercial opportunities around the world…. We’re giving fans the chance to really touch and feel a Premier League club.”

Though the tours have clear benefits for the European clubs, the benefits for American clubs are less clear.

Houston Dynamo President Chris Canetti noted, in anticipation of their game with Manchester City (since cancelled), “We’ve been working very hard over the last several years to try and land a team that has the stature that Man City has. This is going to be a big moment for the club and its fans.” It delivers both an appealing game for their fan base, as well as an additional revenue stream.

The players and coaches, however, are less enthusiastic about the summer friendlies. Many of the top stars from Europe are contractually allowed to skip the games to recover from their seasons or to participate in international competitions, and those that do travel have concerns about the physical toll and potential for injury. This often results in fans missing the team’s full squad – seeing younger and reserve players more often than the superstars they see on TV.

For the American players, the timing is difficult, as they are in the middle of their season, and often have to shoehorn the games between league games. Before the aforementioned Houston Dynamo vs. Manchester City match, for example, Dynamo head coach Owen Coyle, spoke about scheduling concerns: “I don’t think any of us could turn down the opportunity to play such an elite team as Manchester City, and that’s a credit to the match…. It is a quick turnaround … in terms of the squad that’s something we’ll look at very closely.”

It seems clear that the summer friendlies will benefit the coffers of clubs on both sides, and they may boost American soccer fandom overall, but their competitive value, and their appropriate role in the American soccer landscape is a more delicate question.

Image courtesy Houston Dynamo.

August Publications