In late March, Arsenal Football Club officially announced that they’ll be heading to Red Bull Arena on July 26 this summer to take on the Red Bulls in a friendly match. For the North London side, it will be their first contest in the United States in nearly 25 years. It is an event worthy of further examination, given the rarity of the club’s presence on American shores, as well as the potential implications behind the move.
First, we’ll provide a bit of background on Arsenal. Headed by longtime Manager Arsène Wenger, they play arguably the most attractive, pure, possession based game in the Premier League. They’re a side full of potential that fielded one of the best Premiership teams in history in the 2003-2004 campaign – the “Invincibles” went unbeaten riding the magic of Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, and Patrick Vieira. Arsenal is a bit of an enigma, both domestically and in Europe in terms of trophies, but they’re always in the mix, competitive, and genuinely playing for the win, perhaps the reason for their global following and support. They currently sit 4th in the Premiership after holding the top spot for a majority of the year.
The influx of foreign investment in the League – see Chelsea’s Roman Abramovic and Manchester City’s Sheikh Mansour – has changed the landscape of the Premiership. What’s also changed is the way these clubs have been supported around the world. Seemingly overnight and out of nowhere, the United States became full of Chelsea fans after the arrival of the Russian Abramovic and the success found with Jose Mourinho – sides like City and Paris Saint Germain are seeing similar results, as evidenced by their recent ascent in Deloitte’s Money League. A common denominator in all of these sides is summer preseason touring in the United States, where some of the world’s best clubs sell-out ball-parks and football stadiums – during which Arsenal have been absent. It’s an opportunity not taken by the club, however, that appears to be changing. With Arsenal, it’s more than just bringing the team over to play the Red Bulls.
From an outsider’s perspective, it appears that (true to Arsenal form) the Club is looking to build their presence in the USA from the ground up using player development – in this case, with the youth of America. This summer, Arsenal is hosting a series of camps for young players ages 7 to 17 in the Northeast region (New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, & Massachusetts) of the United States. This is an experimentation phase to get a feel for the market and operations before expansion across the country (perhaps in California, Texas, & the Midwest) within the next two years. It’s the first official Arsenal Camp in the States, part of a network of Arsenal Soccer Schools already existing in 21 countries internationally and consisting of approximately 35,000 players. Each camp will feature a coaching staff from Arsenal’s Academy in London (UEFA B & Level II Licensed), supplemented with locally trained and certified auxiliary staff. In each session, these coaches will try to replicate an Academy Session, tailored to the environment and setting.
If you grew up playing in the States in the 90s and 00s, you’re probably familiar with this model. Programs like this are no stranger to the United States, which has hosted the likes of Chelsea, Inter Milan, Benfica, Parma, and Celtic to name just a few. These camps are an opportunity for players to get exposed to a different school of thought. This opens up a young player’s perspective on soccer, while introducing new ideas and approaches to the game. It’s a situation in which, with the appropriate attitude, a young player stands to grow and improve. Albeit relatively brief in the scope of a player’s career, a camp with the right experiences can be an influential moment or turning point where he or she can see things differently, and apply a mindset to their entire approach to their game and skillset. While player development and improvement is a foundation for the camps, it’s important to note that feeding the first team or Academy is not the purpose. More realistically, the focus is to improve a player while further developing campers’ character as a complete and well-balanced person.
Consistent with the aforementioned teams, hosting a camp builds a foundation for your club in the United States. If when you are ten years old, you attend a Chelsea camp, you’ll probably receive a jersey and a bunch of gear – barring a previous bias, you’re a fan for life. It might sound childish, but there’s something very real with having a connection to a club. Americans of all backgrounds are looking for a team to support in England – long gone are the times of ESPN without Champions League highlights and Premier League results on the Bottom Line. If a competitive club can give fans a reason to connect, they stand to gain revenue in apparel, ticket sales, and general support throughout the course of a fan’s lifetime – a sustainable, and real diversification of their fan base. This is true for any club – what’s unique to Arsenal is this: they are known for their focus on playing attractively and methods of developing players. And unlike a team such as Chelsea or Paris Saint Germain, Arsenal already have a solid foundation in the States; the aforementioned teams had to start more from scratch. By attracting a general youth soccer crowd, supplemented by serious soccer players who know what a club like Arsenal has to offer, Arsenal stands in a prime position to boost their already strong presence in the States. Meanwhile, if Arsenal continues to tour in the States, they can supplement the grassroots youth project, while reaching out to the adult crowd. Kids want to go see their team, parents enjoy world class soccer; it’s both a learning experience and entertainment. For the fans and the Club, it’s a win-win.
Arsenal has kept away from the States for far too long. However, what they appear to have in place here is a long-term project that will be interesting to see unfold. It’s the Arsenal way.