How much is too much on the summer soccer schedule? – Los Angeles Times
Give a couple of tournament organizers eight days, 50 states and hundreds of hours of TV time to work with and you think they’d be able to stay out of each others’ way, right?
Apparently not. At least not in the case of this month’s CONCACAF Gold Cup, the continent’s biennial international championship that starts Friday, and the International Champions Cup, an annual summer series of exhibitions featuring some of the best club teams in the world that begins July 19.
Four times during the knockout stage of the Gold Cup, ICC games have been scheduled to kick off at roughly the same time on a rival TV network. Twice ICC matches will be played on the same night in the same state, with the Gold Cup final in Santa Clara, Calif., competing for attention with an ICC exhibition between Real Madrid and Manchester City at the Coliseum.
It seems an avoidable fracturing of a nascent U.S. soccer audience that is still trying to find a focus. Yet neither side appears particularly troubled by that.
“We don’t want to overlap with any games because we don’t want to lose fans to them,” Charlie Stillitano, a venue director during the 1994 World Cup and former MLS general manager who now runs the ICC, said by phone. “But in these cases [the clubs] have 10 days, this is what their schedule is and they need to fit in these days.”
CONCACAF was so unconcerned it couldn’t even be bothered to take a call, instead issuing a statement attributed to Philippe Moggio, the group’s general secretary.
“The U.S. is a large market for sport in general and soccer specifically,” the statement said. “The interest we see for exhibition matches and other friendly games demonstrates the tremendous — and growing — overall demand for soccer in this country.”
Maybe he’s right. Maybe the sleeping giant of soccer fandom in the U.S. no longer needs to be protected and coddled. Maybe there are enough fans to go around.
Consider that the Gold Cup final figures to pit the U.S. against Mexico, a matchup that could sell out Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara while drawing a respectable TV audience on Fox Sports. The game between Champions League winner Real Madrid and Premier League giant Manchester City, to be played on the same night, could draw more than 60,000 to the Coliseum — on a Wednesday — and perhaps a million or more to the ESPN broadcast.
Two years ago the Gold Cup’s 26 games drew an average crowd of nearly 42,000 despite competing with the ICC. Mexico’s final three games pulled in more than 213,000 people.
The ICC has done even better. Over the last three summers, five ICC games have been played before crowds larger than 82,000. Real Madrid has twice drawn more than 105,000 to Michigan Stadium.
Those are the two largest crowds in U.S. soccer history.
Surely the two tournaments have proved they can co-exist. Consider the fact they’ll combine to play 37 games in 23 days in 12 states — but just four cities will host matches from both events. No longer do organizers have to focus on urbane enclaves on the two coasts.
Aside from the two tournaments, there will also be July friendlies featuring touring teams from the German Bundesliga, Mexico’s Liga MX, Spain’s La Liga and the English Premier League as well as a four-team women’s international event involving the U.S., Brazil, Australia and Japan.
That’s a lot of soccer, which raises the danger the star power of the ICC — as well as the other games — will eclipse the Gold Cup this summer, and that could have dire consequences.
The Gold Cup has been around since 1991 and, unlike the ICC, 22 years its junior, it is a competitive tournament that decides the continental champion of North America, Central America and Caribbean. It is also the biggest regular source of revenue on the CONCACAF calendar, one that funds age-group championships as well as development programs in 41 member countries, many of which are desperately poor.
But this year, with World Cup qualifying bracketing the summer schedule, the region’s two powers, reigning champion Mexico and the U.S., are sending “B” teams. That means no Chicharito and no Christian Pulisic, so even if the two teams meet in the final, as expected, it will be U.S vs. Mexico in name only.
The rest of the field includes the likes of Nicaragua, Curacao, French Guiana and Martinique. Not much of a buzz there, even for soccer fans.
Compare that with the ICC, exhibitions that make money primarily for its already insanely rich clubs and the investors who underwrite the competition. Its field is the strongest ever, featuring Champions League finalists Real Madrid and Juventus plus matchups between league rivals Manchester United-Manchester City and Barcelona-Real Madrid.
Because of the big crowds, the rivalries and the TV attention, players say they no longer treat these games as meaningless friendlies.
“These games have got more recognition now,” said Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany. “You play against big sides. You don’t want to lose.”
So what if Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo skip the preseason exhibitions? If you live in Florida do you go see Panama-Nicaragua in Tampa or do you wait 17 days, then drive to Miami to see a mixture of reserves and first-team players from Barcelona and Real Madrid?
Yet while there’s room for two tournaments and a smattering of exhibitions in one summer, is there enough interest and passion for both to succeed when they bump up against one another? And will the dollars the ICC games pull in be ones that come out of the pockets of CONCACAF; funds that would otherwise have gone to support the kind of grassroots programs the organizers of both tournaments say they support?
Clearly there are more questions than answers at this point.
“In an ideal world you wouldn’t schedule it that way. But it happens,” U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati said. “You can’t avoid some of those things.”
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