It may not have been apparent from the sparse crowds in attendance at the United States men’s national team’s two warmup games over the past week, but the biggest men’s soccer tournament to hit U.S. shores in more than 20 years is now just three days away.
For one time only, the world’s oldest international continental soccer competition, the Copa America, is heading north for its centenary celebration. And along with its traditional 10 teams, including global powers Argentina and Brazil, South America’s flagship event will be boosted by six sides from the Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football, Concacaf, among them the U.S. and Mexico.
Yet beyond just friendly matches for the U.S. against Ecuador and Bolivia, which each attracted less than 10,000 fans, the buildup to the Copa America Centenario has been far from smooth sailing. It was only seven months ago that the event was finally confirmed after a corruption scandal ripped through the sport’s international governing body, FIFA. Several top officials from Concacaf and South America’s association, Conmebol, were indicted on corruption charges. Moreover, the marketing company that held the rights for the 2016 Copa America, Datisa, had been linked to a marketing scandal involving $110 million in bribes for the event alone.
On the playing front, with the tournament coming in the midst of South American World Cup qualifiers and in the same summer as the Olympics, there also was fear that some of the star names would skip the trip to the U.S. For the most part that hasn’t happened. However, Brazilian star Neymar will be absent, while his Barcelona teammate Luis Suárez is set to miss the group stage because of injury. But Lionel Messi, Alexis Sánchez and James Rodríguez will all be present.
It is not hard to see why U.S. coach Jürgen Klinsmann has been so keen to talk up the significance of the event, both on and off the pitch.
“It’s the biggest tournament since the 1994 World Cup in the United States,” he said this week.
And it is the success of that World Cup that makes it easy to understand why South America’s confederation was so keen to take its tournament stateside. The 1994 World Cup remains the best attended of all time. With an average attendance of close to 67,000 per match, it is a long way ahead of its closest competitor, in Brazil two years ago, which averaged just short of 53,000 fans per game.
And the crowds in 1994 were achieved despite the U.S. not even having a top-tier professional soccer league at the time. Major League Soccer, set up at the behest of FIFA in order to host that World Cup, is now in its 21st season. Last year, the league set an attendance record, with an average of 21,568 fans per match.
From a commercial perspective, the Copa America Centenario has already proved a significant success, with the last of the tournament’s sponsorship inventory being sold out earlier this month to partners including MasterCard, Nike and Coca-Cola. According to Dr. Patrick Rishe, the director of the sports business program at Washington University in St. Louis, the alignment with companies that have long associations with events like the World Cup is a significant boost.
“I think it gives the tournament an air of credibility,” he said. “When you’re used to seeing the big-name corporations being aligned with all these soccer properties, whether it’s the English Premier League or [Spain's] La Liga or the big tournaments, it’s great to see. They’re of course hoping that they’re going to see significant ratings, relatively speaking, for these events, otherwise they wouldn’t want to put their names on it.”
Fox and Univision are also banking on a ratings blitz. Univision paid a reported $60 million for the Spanish-language rights and Fox put up $15 million for the English rights. While the U.S. soccer fan base has grown significantly in recent years, with more than 26 million tuning in to the 2014 World Cup final, Fox appears to be reaching out to broader viewership by having recently retired basketball star Kobe Bryant appear in its pre-tournament promotions.
Making the casual sports fan aware of the event could well be a necessity. While it is the oldest continental international tournament, it has received little U.S. exposure. In 2011, the event had no English-language coverage and last year it was shown by beIN Sports, a network with significantly less reach that the main sports broadcasters. Attracting new fans to the sport through the Copa America could be tough, warns Rishe.
“I’m concerned to just how much [impact] it will have because, for a lot of people, this really just flew under the radar,” he said. “When you have a World Cup, people know it’s coming. Even though we have not hosted the World Cup since ’94, we have now been competing at the World Cup since 1990.”
The tournament’s 32 games will be held in 10 cities across the United States, beginning June 2 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California, and concluding with the final at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Tickets, sold through Ticketmaster, range from $57.65 for some group matches to over $2,000 for the most expensive final ticket.
Rather than utilize some of the soccer-specific stadiums that have increasingly sprung up as MLS’ growth has continued, all games will be held at much larger NFL stadiums. Ticket sales suggest it will lead to huge crowds for marquee matches, such as the matches between the U.S. and Colombia as well as Argentina and Chile at Levi’s Stadium and the final.
Indeed, Argentina’s group-stage contest with Chile, a rematch of the 2015 Copa America final, won by Chile, is the top-selling sports event of the summer on ticket resale site StubHub, according to data provided by Extension PR.
However, there remain huge blocks of seats available on Ticketmaster for lower-profile matches, such as Panama against Bolivia at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Florida. That discrepancy is evident in the average ticket price listed on StubHub for Argentina versus Chile ($167), while Jamaica’s contest with Venezuela at Chicago’s Soldier Field is just $17, well below face value.
“I think they’re going to have some challenges no doubt at some of these matches, because of the day of the week and the attractiveness or lack thereof of a particular match,” Rishe added.
Yet the fact that the venues were decided before the draw in February revealed which teams would be playing which and where left the organizers, says Riske, "between a rock and a hard place." Better to have empty seats than risk not having enough seats to meet demand. And there was logistically no way to tailor the location of a game to where each team would be likely to enjoy the most support. It means Jamaica, for example, will play its three matches in Chicago, Pasadena, California, and Santa Clara, rather than New Jersey or Florida, where there are far larger Jamaican populations.
It is also true that soccer is now far more accessible in the United States today than it was 20 years ago. Far from the novelty it was back then, Americans can now watch many of the U.S. team and an increasing number of international stars in MLS, with the major European club teams also touring the country every summer.
Television, too, is saturated with coverage from all of Europe’s top leagues. And this summer, the Copa America will be taking place at the same time, although later in the day, as the European Championship. Klinsmann has said that the Copa America “easily can compete” with the European Championship.
It is now up to Klinsmann's team and the event’s organizers to work toward ensuring that fans in the U.S. come to the same conclusion.