European soccer clubs look to expand American fan base

This summer, major European clubs will play matches in the U.S. in the International Champions Cup

The U.S. is a long way from being a soccer nation, but it's already a soccer destination.

In July, at least seven major European clubs will visit the U.S. to sell jerseys, entice sponsors and pick up a few million dollars in guaranteed money to play meaningless games in sold-out football stadiums.

Last year, 11 international soccer exhibitions in the U.S. drew crowds of more than 60,000, and the average attendance of the top 16 games nearly matched that of the NFL.

Manchester United pulled in a U.S.-record crowd of 109,318 for a game with Real Madrid at Michigan Stadium, and 86,432 showed up for a midweek Rose Bowl friendly with the Galaxy. UCLA's football team hasn't drawn that many for a regular-season game at that stadium since 2008.

Nearly 70,000 showed up in Charlotte, N.C., to see Liverpool and AC Milan in August.

"They want to expand their brand," Galaxy President Chris Klein said in explaining Europe's infatuation with the U.S. "Second, it's a great place to spend the preseason. The facilities are good, and the competition is good. They like to be in the market."

Clubs such as Barcelona, which will play the Galaxy at the Rose Bowl as part of the third International Champions Cup, can earn more than $2 million a game. Also important, the clubs say, is the chance for fans and sponsors to see the teams in person.

"As the game has become more global and interest has exploded outside traditional markets, clubs now have to accommodate that demand and engage with fans that don't necessarily get to go to the stadium every weekend," said Rudolf Vidal, Bayern Munich's U.S.-based representative. "New markets mean new opportunities for clubs, both in terms of expanding their fan base as well as revenue."

Television coverage of the top European league has fueled interest in the U.S. and elsewhere, spawning fan clubs and making household names of teams and players once unrecognizable off the continent.

Fans bought a record 1.3 million Bayern Munich jerseys worldwide in 2014, more than the other 17 Bundesliga clubs sold combined. Manchester United, which has a $560-million shirt deal with Chevy, unveiled its new uniform in last July's friendly with the Galaxy rather than at the club's home in England.

As relationships with fans and sponsors grow, so should the number of teams playing in the U.S.

This summer, six European teams — Manchester United, Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea, FC Porto and Fiorentina — will join Mexico's Club America and three Major League Soccer teams in the International Champions Cup, playing in at least 10 U.S. cities, including four in California.

A seventh team, Tottenham of the English Premier League, will play the MLS All-Stars in an exhibition in July, the same month of the 12-nation CONCACAF Gold Cup, which will include World Cup teams from Mexico, the U.S., Honduras and Costa Rica.

Next year, South America's Copa America, featuring the national teams of Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Colombia and others, comes to the U.S. for the first time.

Along with the U.S., China is emerging as a vital market for global soccer. Bayern Munich, which came to the U.S. last summer, will play games in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou this July. The team opened a marketing office in New York City last year and is planning one in China.

"For FC Bayern, we have identified two key markets, the U.S. and China, where we know there is not only great interest in soccer but great interest in our club," Vidal said.

Now the question becomes, can there be too much of a good thing? With so many top European teams now touring the U.S., will the crowds and excitement wane?

"It's possible," Klein said. "It hasn't gotten there yet. But we're conscious of that."

Kevin.baxter@latimes.com

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
56°