Coming to America: European Pre-Season in the United States

The Prince of Zamunda may not be coming, but the British are, and they’re not the only ones.

European teams coming to US shores isn’t a new occurrence. Before Guinness did the International Champions Cup there was the Herbalife World Football Challenge, and even before that teams have been doing USA tours for years, with Chelsea FC having done so on five separate preseasons since 2005.

For almost a decade Asia and the United States have been prime preseason destinations for clubs worldwide, which begs the question, what makes this preseason any more significant?

Strength in Numbers

This Summer, US fans around the country will see a total of 20 teams in over 30 games across 25+ different cities. Exactly half of the teams are from the Barclays Premier League alone, along with German Champions Bayern Munich, Spanish Champions Atletico Madrid, Champions League winners Real Madrid, Italian cross-city rivals AC and Inter Milan as well as Roma, Greek powerhouse Olympiakos, Mexican giants Club America and Chivas Guadalajara, and even French representation in AS Monaco.

Many of these teams didn’t come over just to play each other once or twice and head home. While the ESPN Summer of Soccer and the Guinness International Champions Cup (ICC) does represent a large number of these games, many teams will only play American MLS, NASL or USL teams.

La Liga Champions Atletico Madrid, Arsenal, Aston Villa, Crystal Palace, Fulham, Swansea, and West Brom will all play solely against American opponents during their time in the States and Bayern Munich will be coming up against the best of Major League Soccer at the MLS All-Star game in Portland.

In fact both Manchester teams, who will be competing in the ICC, actually started their US tours against MLS opposition. United and City both played yesterday against LA Galaxy and Sporting Kansas City respectively.

Shifts in Goals

For many sports fans, the perception of pre season games can be summed up in one word: Tune Up. This perception implies that the sole reasoning behind coming to the US is to get players fit against inferior opponents and maybe make some money on the side.

This may have been the case 10 years ago, but as Simon Chadwick, Founder and Director of the Center for International Business of Sport, puts it when speaking to CNN

Firstly, tours were about easing players back into the football season after the summer break; then, they became PR vehicles for clubs seeking to build profile and presence around the world.

But we are now in the third age, where strategic development of key target markets and long-term fan engagement are important.

The importance and enthusiasm of the US fan base has been recognized by major clubs even before it was so well publicized during the World Cup. These pre season tours were all planned and organized prior to the World Cup even starting.

The fact is that the US is still one of the wealthiest nations in the world, exemplified by the fact that the US had the largest number of fans by far at the World Cup in Brazil and with the growth of MLS in recent years it’s possible that a large portion of those fans are or will be MLS fans as well.

By hitting both general fans with European showcase match ups and MLS fans with local match ups, teams are covering a massive demographic that if appealed to properly could generate large revenue streams.

According to Nielsen 2013 numbers, 40% of MLS fans are under the age of 34, 92% are White or Hispanic, and 62% make more than 40K a year. This is one of the most attractive demographic profiles in major sports.

To simply ignore the potential and just show up for a game, a paycheck and leave is borderline negligent for any business and it doesn’t look like the major clubs are doing that.

The Strategy

Clubs are taking this opportunity to do more than just expose their teams to fans via high profile games. Teams are basing themselves on college campuses for training and while most practices are closed sessions, many times one or two will be open to media and fans.

Just yesterday, Business of Soccer had the opportunity to attend Inter Milan’s training session at Catholic University in Washington DC. Beyond the usual photographers and journalists, along the sidelines sat kids as young as 4 or 5 years old all the way up to the head of the local supporters group for the DC area who looked in his mid 50s.

After the session ended, players stayed around not just to speak to journalists with microphones but to sign autographs for these fans and take photos with young kids wearing Inter Milan flags. The players didn’t sit behind a table, there wasn’t a fence between them and the fans, high profile players like Nemanja Vidic were right there standing next to the people who would be watching from the stands in under a week.

These are the touch points for these clubs and brands to build and create life long fans. The ones that purchase the new jersey every year, who watch the games on TV and will go every time there’s a US tour.

By bringing on people exclusively for social media engagement throughout the whole tour, clubs ensure that through first time exposure to young fans and sustained exposure the teens and millennials through Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, their brands are being disseminated and exposed to an audience who now has the unprecedented opportunity to watch every regular season game on TV or streaming online no matter the league.

Taylor Twellman during the Tottenham vs Toronto FC game said that 2014 “will be a landmark year for MLS.” The growth and potential he’s talking about isn’t lost on European clubs. They see it too, and just like MLS, they’re not looking to miss out on that growth either.

Reporting on the business side of the world's game.