Since the conclusion of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, there has been a seemingly endless amount of praise for the potential for soccer in the United States. This has been highlighted to great lengths, harping on the idea that America’s time to truly embrace soccer has finally arrived. Major League Soccer (MLS), US Soccer, and the North American Soccer League (NASL), and other soccer organizations in the United States have made clear their intentions to capitalize on the commercial success of the World Cup and convert the casual sports fan to a soccer supporter.
MLS anticipated the rise in interest in soccer in the US and scheduled a series of friendlies against recognizable European clubs who are in training for the start of the 2014/15 European seasons. Within an eight day span, twelve MLS teams faced off against various European clubs in an effort to raise the profile of the sport in the United States. On the surface, it appears that this strategy was a huge success. However, taking a deeper look at the impact of these friendlies might return a hung jury.
Three of the five friendly matches were televised on live television last Wednesday, July 23rd: Manchester United vs. LA Galaxy on Fox Sports 1, Manchester City vs. Sporting Kansas City on ESPN2, and Tottenham Hotspur vs. Toronto FC on ESPN2. These three matches saw 308,000, 297,000, and 189,000 viewers respectively. A total of 794,000 Americans tuned in to watch these matches, not too bad considering the games were played on a Wednesday night with not much meaning behind the games.
Ticket sales for these matches are where MLS and its clubs can proudly waive their banners of success. Ten of the twelve friendlies between MLS clubs and European clubs posted attendance for their friendlies to the tune of 327,676 fans on the week. Seattle Sounders sold 55,349 tickets for their friendly against Tottenham, well above their normal capacity. Toronto FC was less than 800 tickets shy of selling out BMO Field for a Wednesday night match. Sporting Kansas City and the New York Red Bulls sold out both of their friendly matches while The Los Angeles Galaxy sold 84,362 tickets for their match against Manchester United at the Rose Bowl. Other matches showed near sell outs as well.
Pundits say this demonstrates the growing interest and popularity of soccer in the United States. Not only do European clubs wish to train in the United States to promote their organizations to the massive nascent market, but they might take away decent gate receipts as well. Los Angeles Galaxy sold tickets to their match against Manchester United starting at $35. If every ticket was sold at this price (which we know they were not all the same price, but for example’s sake let’s use it), the club earned a minimum of $2.95 million from ticket sales alone.
Commercially, MLS earns high marks for their business plan. Competitively, the league may have taken a slight hit. Remember, the ultimate goal of MLS and others is to grow the game and get fans to continue to come back to the stadiums, despite the high profile of their opponent. In the twelve friendlies, European teams scored a combined 28 goals whereas MLS teams scored a paltry nine. Only five of twelve MLS teams managed to score a goal against their opponents from across the Atlantic. It is easy to argue that the score line of friendlies is virtually meaningless and no value should be placed on these games. The casual sports fan and media giants such as ESPN might read into these score lines differently, drawing potential MLS fans towards European clubs instead. MLS certainly does not want to project the idea to potential customers that their league is second-rate to European leagues.
The New York Red Bulls may be a perfect example of the dangers of these high profile friendlies. In a match that saw Arsenal legend and current New York Red Bull, Thierry Henry face off against his former club, fans flocked to Red Bull Arena in unprecedented numbers. In fact, the club has been criticized for its inability to fill its stadium weekly despite its position in the New York market. Yet, despite the hype surrounding the match, both Thierry Henry and head coach Mike Petke downplayed the match, instead focusing on facing Real Salt Lake in an official league match four days after their Saturday friendly. Mike Petke explained,
[The friendly against Arsenal,] is a nice thing but we’re judged on our results in the league. It’s exciting for fans…but it’s a glamor thing for the league, fans, and supporters. This is a big game for the club and for the league.
MLS already has a difficult time adjusting the schedule every year to fit in league play, the US Open Cup tournament and the CONCACAF Champions League. These friendlies in the midst of the MLS season, while positive commercially, puts a strain on coaches and players. When asked if it would be appropriate for MLS to incorporate a break in the MLS season to showcase these friendlies, Petke said,
We don’t [break] for the World Cup; we don’t for most FIFA dates. That’s probably at the bottom of the league’s “to-do list”. Perception wise, I have bosses to answer to. If it were to come down to 7-0 like we saw last night [in Los Angeles Galaxy’s loss to Manchester United] it wouldn’t be good for me.
Petke, like many MLS head coaches, faced tough roster decisions in these friendlies. Coaches can put out a B-squad in a meaningless friendly and risk losing big in front of potential MLS fans with a group of non-starters. If coaches line up a more competitive squad, they risk tiring out key players for an upcoming league match, or worse, risking injury, all for the purpose of showcasing the quality of the team and keeping fans coming back to the stadium.
These trans-Atlantic friendlies are part of the league’s quest to turn curious fans into lifelong fans. It certainly looks flashy on paper and lines the pockets of MLS organizations, but MLS will know soon enough if they have achieved their ultimate goal: Will fans return to support their local club or fall in love with something an ocean away?