In December 2014, CONCACAF released its initial schedule for the 2015 Gold Cup, to be held in 13 cities across the US and, for the first time, Canada. In the first of this two-part series, Business of Soccer examines trends in attendance and venue selection since the tournament’s initial edition nearly 24 years ago.
Ask most well-versed European or South American soccer enthusiasts about the significance of June 25, 2011, and it’s not likely you’ll get much more than a blank stare.
But for many hardcore fans of North American soccer, the date signifies a watershed moment in the region’s modern soccer history, with the final of the CONCACAF Gold Cup providing the culmination of a hugely successful 13-city tournament that saw total attendance top 1.1 million, nearly on par with the far more established European Championship, and an almost unthinkable threefold increase over the inaugural tournament held just 20 years earlier. The final matchup between the USA and Mexico was a fan’s dream—a sold-out showdown between the region’s two heavyweights, both of whom had fielded near full-strength sides in hopes of capturing the title of “regional champion” along with a coveted spot in the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup.
I was among 93,000 eager fans who descended upon Pasadena on that sweltering afternoon, having paid nearly triple the face value for a pair of tickets in the somewhat comically-misnamed “US Supporters Section” (which, like most of the stadium, was awash in the green, red, and white signature of El Tri, a not unfamiliar occurrence for international matches held in Southern California). And the match did not disappoint — a pulsating, end-to-end encounter that ultimately saw Mexico roar back from a two goal deficit to claim the championship by a final score of 4-2, punctuated by an exquisite chip from Giovani Dos Santos that sent the raucous crowd into raptures.
Indeed, for an unforgettable 90 minutes, it was the electric atmosphere and frenzied crowd that stole the show in the twilight of the Rose Bowl, the venerable stadium that had famously hosted the World Cup Final in 1994 and the Women’s World Cup Final in 1999, but which had not in 20 years previously managed a sell-out for a Gold Cup match.
At last, it seemed, CONCACAF had genuine reason to believe it could stage a first-class regional championship that could compare with the passion, popularity, and tradition of the European Championships or the Copa America, Even amongst the disappointed US supporters, there was a sense in the stadium that something special was happening—and it was here to stay.
It was a far cry from my first Gold Cup experience nearly a decade earlier—a group-stage doubleheader in the same stadium, with Mexico playing El Salvador, and the US entertaining South Korea on a crisp Friday afternoon in January, 2002. While the games themselves delivered no shortage of drama, there was little of this vibrancy and passion to be found amongst the revolving-door crowd of only 42,000 (which actually turned out to be the largest draw of the entire tournament). Indeed, by the time a 19-year old DaMarcus Beasley opened his US scoring account by volleying home a spectacular stoppage-time winner, many of the initial crowd who saw Mexico defeat El Salvador had left the building entirely. On the walk home, my father – a native Englishman with a rather higher expectation for cup ties – remarked that the whole event was “quite exciting… but a bit rinky-dink” for his liking. Certainly, neither of us expected the tournament to transform so drastically over the next nine years.
So when CONCACAF recently announced its selection of dates and venues for the forthcoming 2015 Gold Cup, I decided it was time to dig into the historical data and see if I could find explanations for some of the questions around this increasingly popular event… Just how popular are Gold Cup games? Do people care as much about mundane group stage games anywhere near as much as they do semi-finals or finals? Is El Tri as overwhelmingly popular in the Northeast or Midwest as they appear to be in Southern California? Can CONCACAF expect to fill American football stadiums consistently for its regional tournament in the future? What has worked? What has failed? And what has the federation added to improve the attractiveness of the experience for its fans?
Here is what I was able to find… and what fans of the tournament should look to see as the Gold Cup continues to evolve.
Background & Evolution of the Current Format
Since its inception in 1991, the Gold Cup has served as the CONCACAF’s biennial showpiece event, crowning its regional champion and (more recently) determining the federation’s entrant into the FIFA Confederations Cup, while also providing a significant source of revenue for CONCACAF and its member associations.
Once a single-city tournament, played in front of large swaths of empty seats in cavernous venues such as the LA Coliseum and the Rose Bowl, the Gold Cup has evolved into a hugely popular expression of the Beautiful Game and its subtle regional rivalries. The tournament has enjoyed a significant and sustained increase in viewership and attendance, partly reflecting the growing interest in soccer amongst North Americans following the US-hosted World Cup in 1994, and the launch of Major League Soccer (MLS) in 1995.
Tournament organizers who once worried about whether people would show up at all now find themselves facing the much more welcome challenge of attendance optimization.
To cultivate this growing interest, CONCACAF has made numerous innovations and adjustments to the tournament format, expanding the tournament from its initial 8-team field to the current 12-team format, while also increasing the number of venues from an initial two (both located in Southern California) to the current selection of 13 cities/venues, primarily located within the United States (Mexico City has hosted games in 1993 and 2003, while Toronto will be hosting its first Gold Cup matches in 2015).
The Federation has also experimented with timing, location, stadium types, and competitive format, as well as the inclusion of “guest” participants from other confederations.
While the impact of these experiments has been has been mixed, CONCACAF seems to have settled on a “formula” since 2005, generally summarized below:
- Participants: 12 teams total (no guest teams), divided into three groups of four
- Timing: June/July, held every other year
- Venues: Up to 13 cities located primarily in the United States, selected by CONCACAF
- Competitive Structure: Round robin + single-elimination knockout stage for top 8 teams. Third place game to be reintroduced in 2015 (for comparative purposes, third place games have been excluded from this analysis)
- Doubleheaders: A signature feature throughout the tournament’s existence has been the use of matchday doubleheaders, which help bolster attendance by ensuring that matches between relative “minnows” such as Haiti and Nicaragua are paired with bigger-drawing matches featuring regional heavyweights such as Mexico and the United States in the same stadium.
A historical summary of total attendance and stadium capacity factors (reported attendance divided by listed stadium capacity) is presented in Exhibit 2 below.
Historically, Mexico stands alone as the Gold Cup’s “big draw”
The popularity of soccer in Mexico, as well as the surviving popularity of El Tri amongst Mexican-American immigrants in the United States has been well-documented, and the Gold Cup offers a prime example of the passion and loyalty that Mexico fans continue to demonstrate to their national side in venues throughout North America.
As shown in Exhibit 3 below, attendance for Mexico games averages slightly fewer than 50,000 per match, about 14,400 more than the US, who are in a cluster of seven countries averaging between 32,100 and 34,600 (min 14 games played). Brazil ranks first among guest participants, with average attendance of 37,700 in 12 total matches.
A glance at the 10 all-time best-attended Gold Cup games is consistent with this trend; Mexico has appeared in all , as shown in Exhibit 4 below:
But the US is second, right? Not so fast… the key word is “diversity”
Given its large population, and the fact it has hosted or co-hosted every tournament to date, it might seem intuitive that the US would rank first among the top-drawing teams not named Mexico.
The data here can be deceptive. As discussed previously, the attendance data is inherently distorted by the prevalence of doubleheaders in tournament scheduling. Since available attendance data does not isolate intraday match attendance, teams that play games in the same stadium as Mexico on a doubleheader day may appear “on paper” to be attracting more fans than they actually are.
So how do we adjust for this distortion?
If we exclude Mexico games/doubleheaders from the data (i.e. remove all matches played in the same stadium and on the same day as a Mexico game), we see that the US really does not hold any measurable advantage here. In fact, as shown in Exhibit 5 below, both El Salvador and Jamaica boast substantially (4,000-5,000) higher average attendances than the US historically when adjusting for the “Mexico effect” (minimum 10 games).
Clearly, it would seem that the diversity amongst the soccer-supporting communities in the US has manifested itself in the historical attendance data. And from a competitive standpoint, parity in this regard is probably good news for the tournament, which seems likely to be hosted primarily in the United States for the foreseeable future.
Regional Attendance Trends Include Some Unique Observations
Over its history, the Gold Cup has featured matches in 34 venues across a diverse array of cities, which have been generally divided into “regions” for the analytical purposes below.
Some surprising (and not-so-surprising) observations regarding the historical attendance data across venues, as well as things to look for in Gold Cup 2015 and beyond…
The Increasing Role of Smaller Venues and Soccer-Specific Stadia Perhaps taking a cue from Major League Soccer, Gold Cup organizers have more recently begun including more intimate venues, with capacities between 18,000 and 27,000, for certain group stage games. These venues offer the opportunity to capture higher capacity factors for potentially less-popular games, which improves operating cost efficiencies while also providing a better and more exciting in-stadium experience.
For example, the tournament’s organizers have recently preferred the smaller, soccer-specific StubHub Center (formerly the Home Depot Center) for games played in the soccer hotbed of Southern California, as opposed to the much larger Rose Bowl and LA Coliseum, which played host to 44 games between 1991 and 2002, but which have hosted only five games since. The trend is set to continue in 2015, with the StubHub Center set to host a single group-stage doubleheader. In fact, this will be the only set of games in our entire West region, which brings us to our next observation…
The Gold Cup has been Migrating East: While the initial tournament in 1991 was played entirely in the Los Angeles area, the most recent tournament in 2013 saw only six of the tournament’s 25 games played in the West region, all group stage games played in MLS stadia. A map of announced 2015 venues illustrates the changing preferences of tournament organizers in selecting cities host cities.
Don’t Mess With Texas: Perhaps influenced by its proximity to Mexico and robust population of Mexican-American immigrants, Texas boasts perhaps the most impressive record among US states who have hosted Gold Cup matches, beginning with the Cotton Bowl in 1993. Of the 27 Matches played in the state, over half (14 total) have been sellouts, including all six matches played at the new 80,000 Cowboys Stadium
The Midwest Has Shown Well: Once avoided by organizers, in preference to border states and regions in closer proximity to the other member countries, CONCACAF has recently begun scheduling more matches in the region, including both large scale, knockout round games (including the 2007 final match), and smaller group-stage matches, particularly those involving the US, given the US team’s popularity within the region for World Cup Qualifying matches.
The Unbounded Popularity of El Tri: The reach of Mexico’s drawing power is again seen in the regional data. As shown in Exhibit 7 above, attendance for games featuring Mexico exceeds average game attendance, in some cases by a considerable margin.
What about the Pacific Northwest? Fans of MLS may be surprised to see that the Gold Cup has largely ignored the Pacific Northwest (included herein within the “West” region due to the small sample size), which has been a significant driver of surging MLS attendance within the past decade. Interestingly, the Gold Cup has only visited the region four times (two games each for Seattle’s CenturyLink Field and Portland’s Providence Park), none of which were sell-outs.
One potential deterrent might be the playing surfaces at both venues, which use artificial turf as opposed to real grass (though it should be noted that Gold Cup matches have been played on artificial surfaces before). Regardless, the trend is set to continue in 2015—no matches have been scheduled in the region.
Is there Hope for Venues in Less-Used or Recently-Neglected Regions? Hard to say…. But the answer is probably “yes”. If nothing else, CONCACAF has shown a willingness to experiment with its selection of host cities and stadia at each iteration of the tournament. There is little reason based on past history to assume that the format and host cities have been “set in stone”.
There is also the matter of the hotly-anticipated 2016 Copa America Centenario, to be hosted by CONCACAF in cooperation with the South American Confederation (CONMEBOL). The joint organizers recently released its “shortlist” of 26 interested host cities (all of which have stadia which exceed the qualifying capacity of 50,000), which includes a number of cities that were bypassed for the upcoming Gold Cup. While it’s not clear how these venues were specifically selected, it is natural to assume that attendance data will be used for the selection of future international tournaments in North America.
Attendance Predictions for Gold Cup 2015?
Will Gold Cup 2015 continue to exhibit the growing attendance that it has over the past decade? Can organizers capitalize on the popularity of World Cup 2014, which generated unprecedented television ratings in North America? Will my dad be satisfied – at last – that the US and its neighbors are capable of producing a regional championship on the level of the European Championship?
Check back soon for more, as Business of Soccer will follow up with a forecast of attendance based on its own model and regression analysis, following finalization of the full Gold Cup field.