1 Soccer and Society Vol. 6, No. 1, March 2005, pp Can European Football Spur Interest in American Soccer? A Look at the Champions World Series and Major League Soccer Sean Fredrick Brown FSAS sgm / Soccer Original 2005 Taylor March SeanFredrick University & and Article Francis of (print)/ Society Chicago651 Brown 2005 Group Ltd Ltd E. 50th (online) Pl. #3WChicagoIL This essay seeks to study media and fan reaction to the Champions World series, a sequence of exhibition soccer games featuring the world s leading club sides organized by Champions World, a New Jersey based company specializing in sports marketing, to judge its overall efficacy in promoting soccer in the United States. It argues that while the Champions World series does not really represent an obstacle in the way of soccer in the US, it has in no way been helpful in increasing the profile of Major League Soccer, which is essential in establishing soccer as a major sport in the US sporting pantheon. It suggests that in order to be successful in the United States, soccer must have a professional league. Finally, it contends that though the Champions World series might never have any perceptible impact on the future of US soccer, it is, given its financial lure, likely to become a staple of the summer sports season in the United States. Introduction On 22 July 2003 in Seattle, Washington, Manchester United defeated Celtic 4-0 in an exhibition soccer match that was the first in what became known as the Champions World Series, an exhibition tour of prominent European and South American teams, most notably Manchester United. Joining Manchester United were prominent European teams Celtic, Barcelona, Juventus, AC Milan and South American teams Boca Juniors and Club America. The teams played a total of seven matches in the United States. The goals of the series were twofold: the tour presented a revenue stream for Champions World as well as the teams involved in the tour. Secondly, the tour was designed to promote the sport in the United States. The secondary status of Sean Fredrick Brown is at the University of Chicago, 651 E. 50 th Pl. #3W, Chicago, IL Tel.: ISSN (print)/issn (online) 2005 Taylor & Francis Group Ltd DOI: /
2 50 S. F. Brown soccer in the American sports pantheon is well documented, though not commented on extensively. It was hoped (ostensibly) that the exposure of American sports fans to top-quality European soccer would spur interest in Major League Soccer, making soccer a viable part of the American sporting scene. The 2003 tour seemed to be successful in its endeavour. Overall, the 2003 tour averaged 52,634 fans per game for the seven game series. This figure dwarfs the average Major League Soccer attendance, which currently stands at around 15,000. The obvious success of the 2003 tour made a repeat tour in 2004 inevitable. The size of the 2004 tour was expanded both in the number of teams (though the tour was almost exclusively European) and locations. The 2004 series also had the added benefit of television coverage. Overall, however, average attendance dropped from 52,634 in 2003 to 39,814 in Even more striking is the drop in attendance in cities that hosted matches in both 2003 and While those cities averaged 73,701 fans in 2003, that number dropped to 39,999 in Though Champions World has already committed to a series in 2005, it remains to be seen whether the series can generate enough interest to warrant many more return trips to the United States for prominent world soccer powers in the years to come. Figure 1 This essay seeks to study media and fan reaction to the Champions World series to judge its overall efficacy in promoting soccer in the United States. Two major questions need to be examined to form preliminary judgments on the overall success of Champions World in its stated endeavours: 1. Have the American media paid enough attention to the series to effectively promote it? 2. Has the series affected MLS attendance in its wake? This essay seeks to begin inquiry into these two questions in an effort to ascertain whether these tours can spark lasting interest in domestic professional soccer. By looking into print media coverage of the games in cities with MLS franchises as well as MLS attendance in 2004, this essay opens up lines of inquiry into whether these tours are effective in their stated goals. It is expected that while newspaper coverage of these events is adequate (if not exactly extensive), the Champions World series has yet to have a major impact on MLS attendance. I have also attempted to discuss why a tour such as this might succeed or fail, and hypothesize on the possible conditions required for soccer to join the upper echelon of the American sporting pantheon. Figure 1. Champions World Attendance.
3 Background Soccer and Society 51 It is no secret that soccer in the United States is an afterthought amongst most sports fans. In terms of viewership and revenue, it is well behind the traditional Big Three of the American sports pantheon of football, baseball and basketball. Furthermore, in terms of culture, soccer lags far behind these three sports. Markovits and Hellerman delve into the notion of a nation s sporting culture, noting that a sporting culture revolves around what people follow as spectators rather than the sports they participate in as athletes. Thus, soccer, despite having very impressive levels of participation by amateur athletes (especially at the youth level), has never gained a foothold in the sporting culture of the United States. It is simply not a sport that most people follow as sports fans as they do baseball, basketball and football. This can be illustrated in terms of television ratings. The 2003 MLS Cup match was only able to muster a rating of 0.6, while the 2003 World Series garnered a 13.9, the 2003 NBA Finals series earned a 6.5, and the Super Bowl earned a 41.3 rating. Figure 2 It is true that soccer in the United States has slowly gained popularity since the 1994 World Cup was staged on American soil. Since that time, a first-division domestic professional league was born (MLS) which survives to this day. In addition, overall attendance for MLS compares favourably to other professional leagues where soccer is irrefutably part of the sporting culture, such as Argentina and Holland. Finally, revenue for MLS has eclipsed the $100 million mark. However, MLS continues to lose money, and has only one team that has ever turned a profit in the league s entire existence, the Los Angeles Galaxy. Attendance, while comparing favourably to mid-level European leagues with an average 2003 attendance of 14,898, pales in comparison to the more dominant American professional leagues. In 2003, the NBA averaged 16,778 fans per game, MLB averaged 27,858 fans per game, and the NFL averaged 66,726 fans per game. Combined with the overwhelming disparity in television ratings (where the bulk of overall revenue is generated for the higher revenue sports), the hierarchy of the American sports culture still clearly places soccer well below the Big Three that typically define American sports. Figure 3 Figure Championship TV Ratings.
4 52 S. F. Brown Figure Average Attendance. It is within this broader context of American sports-media culture that Champions World operates. Champions World is a New Jersey-based promotions company specializing in sports marketing and promotions. According to their official website, they also have experience in consulting on both the men s and women s World Cup, as well as corporate hospitality experience, though they operate primarily in the realm of international football. It is important to note that Champions World operates independently of MLS and in fact, its Champions World series tour occurs in the middle of the MLS season. This may seem as though it draws attention away from MLS action, but the scheduling could directly benefit MLS attendance figures, because MLS would provide supplementary soccer action for fans fresh from a Champions World match. Their interest heightened, it is possible that there could be carryover from the Champions World match into subsequent MLS matches in the same city. This is the major issue that this study intends to address taking into account the Champions World matches that took place in Chicago on 25 July 2004 between Manchester United and Bayern Munich, as well as the three matches that took place in New York in the summer of 2004. These matches included one of the marquee match ups of the 2004 series in the Manchester/Munich matchup. Manchester United can lay claim to being the most popular soccer draw in the United States (not to mention the world popularity of the Red Devils), evidenced by its attendance figures during the 2003 Champions World series. Of the seven games of that series, the four Manchester United games were the most highly attended. This phenomenon was repeated in the 2004 series, where, of the 11 games of the series, the three involving Manchester United were the most well-attended. If the subsequent games of the MLS franchise in Chicago (the Chicago Fire) and New York (MetroStars) drew more fans on average than the pre ChampionsWorld series match, then it would support the notion that such a tour can help spark and sustain interest in domestic professional soccer. In addition, the reaction of local media to the match might also have an effect. Media coverage of the event can also be a helpful gauge of public attitudes towards the match itself.
5 Soccer and Society 53 Thus, it is of value here to assess whether the print media coverage of the Chicago and New York matches had any effect on subsequent Chicago Fire and MetroStars home matches. If it is evident that newspaper coverage for the event was sparse up until the immediate days before the match, and that the match had little, if any effect on Chicago Fire and MetroStars attendance afterward, then it will cast serious doubt on whether these types of tours have any hope of assisting soccer in its quest for American cultural significance. It may be that these tours are quite beneficial for Champions World, the teams touring the United States, and a cache of dedicated soccer fans in this country, but only in a financial sense. While exact figures are not readily available, the continuation of the series from year to year indicates that the series has been financially successful for Champions World and the teams involved up to this point. Methodology In order to gather the necessary information, the print media of Chicago and New York was surveyed, and the attendance figures for the Fire were researched. For print media coverage, the Chicago Tribune (the top selling and circulating newspaper) and the New York Times sports sections were surveyed for a total of ten days (the eight preceding the match itself, and the two days afterward). Thus, for the Manchester United/Bayern Munich match which took place on 25 July 2004, the Tribune Sports section was surveyed for stories about the match for the dates 18 July to 27 July, and the New York Times sports section was surveyed from 25 July to 5 August. The page numbers of the stories, as well as their content was noted in order to gain a sense of the overall feel of the print media coverage of the event. Attendance figures for those dates before and after the Champions World series match were provided by Major League Soccer s official website, which tracks attendance for every game on its schedule. Attendance figures were tracked on a game-by-game basis for all 2004 home matches, and the 2003 aggregate attendance figures were gathered as a point of reference for the project. Certain random dates were cross-referenced with the Chicago Tribune box scores to eliminate the possibility of bias in the official statistics kept by the league. All numbers listed by MLS matched the numbers in the Chicago Tribune. Thus, the attendance figures provided by MLS can safely be trusted for the games referenced. Results The match between Manchester United and Bayern Munich took place on 25 July 2004 at Soldier Field in Chicago. Thus, the Chicago Tribune sports section was surveyed from the 18 July edition to the 27 July edition. In total, there appeared a total of six articles that dealt either directly or indirectly with the game. Specifically, there appeared two articles on 22 July, one article on 23 July, one on 25 July, and two articles on 26 July. Two of the articles appeared on the front page of the sport section, one appeared on the front page of the Metro section (Chicagoland news), and the rest appeared on various pages of the sport section. Two of the articles dealt
6 54 S. F. Brown specifically with aspects of Manchester United, one dealt specifically with Bayern Munich, and only one dealt specifically with the actual game. The game itself was described by most in attendance and by most pundits as a major disappointment. The two teams left several of their more recognized players off the field, and the two teams garnered very few scoring opportunities. Regulation time ended with the teams tied at nil. It was the first scoreless draw of any Champions World series match, and the crowd jeered as time expired. It was decided by Champions World officials that the game would be decided on penalty kicks, with no extra time played. In the end, Bayern Munich keeper Oliver Khan made two saves in the shootout to carry Bayern to victory, four to two on penalties. Despite the relative lack of newspaper coverage (the local American football team known as the Chicago Bears average ten or more articles in any given five day span when in season), attendance at the match was impressive, with the overall attendance figure at 58,121 fans. This figure far exceeded the average attendance for the Chicago Fire, which had averaged 17,601 fans per game for the 2004 season prior to the Champions World series match. If, in fact, the Champions World series made the same impact as its stated objectives, then one would expect that, after experiencing top level soccer, American sports fans would then turn to their local teams to satisfy their newfound desire for the sport. In Chicago, this has not been the case. Since the ChampionsWorld series match, the Chicago Fire has averaged 17,086 fans per home match, a slight decline in attendance from their pre match levels. The New York scenario is relatively more complicated than that of Chicago simply because Champions World scheduled three games in New York as part of the 2004 series. Between 31 July and 3 August, three games were played at Giants Stadium. On 31 July, Manchester United played AC Milan to a draw at one goal a piece. On 1 August, FC Porto, the UEFA Champions League champion for 2004 dropped a two to one decision to Turkish Super League team Galatasaray. Finally, on 3 August, Liverpool defeated AS Roma by a two to one score, ending the 2004 Champions World series for The first item that is striking to the observer is that no team other than Manchester United received substantial coverage in the New York Times. Of the four total items appearing on the three matches, only two did not deal directly with United. Those were the game recaps for the Manchester United/AC Milan match and the match recap of the Porto/Galatasaray match. These recaps were buried in back pages, and without their own headlines. They were simply part of minor sporting news lumped together and noted with bullet points. Only two proper articles appeared in the Times regarding the tour, and they both dealt exclusively with Manchester United. What is also noteworthy is that there appeared no articles or mentions whatsoever of the Liverpool/ Roma match. In the eight days leading up to and the two days following that match, the Times made no mention of it. There was not even a match recap buried deep within the sports section of the paper. It was almost as if the match never occurred. This alarming lack of print media coverage of the matches not involving Manchester United underscores the enormous disparity in attendance figures for the matches. While the Manchester/Milan match drew a series high of 74,511 fans, the other two
7 Soccer and Society 55 matches had to be considered disappointments to the Champions World organizers. Porto and Galatasaray managed to draw only 15,408 fans, while the virtually ignored match involving Liverpool and Roma drew 25,028. Given these figures, it is highly unlikely that organizers of this event will schedule it similarly in The same question asked of the Chicago match can again be asked here: Did the Champions World series matches have a positive effect on the attendance of the MetroStars? The unequivocal answer is no. In the nine home matches for the MetroStars before the Champions World series matches took place, an average of 17,414 fans attended each match, or approximately 2,000 more fans than attended the Porto/Galatasaray match. In the three post Champions World matches hosted by the MetroStars, they have averaged 13,666 fans per game, an extremely significant and sudden drop in fan interest. This is despite the fact that the MetroStars currently sit in second place in their division, and will undoubtedly make the playoffs. Figure 4 Observations First and foremost, the print media coverage of the series matches was sparse at best, far short of what was imagined. In fact, coverage for any team other than Manchester United was virtually nonexistent. While this lack of coverage may not have hurt attendance in Chicago or New York, it did ensure that the crowd was dominated by a certain type of fan. This type of fan would already be committed to following soccer, and would not have needed media attention towards the game as an enticement to attend the event. On the other hand, there did not seem to be enough media attention to draw the casual or otherwise disinterested sports fan to the game. Instead, in these two markets, with extensive immigrant populations, the game brought out fans that already followed European soccer, but were less likely to follow MLS. This point can be illustrated in another way. When the United States played the Polish national team in a friendly before a Chicago Fire match in Soldier Field, a season-high 39,529 fans turned out for the match. That particular crowd was dominated by fans of the Polish national Figure 4. MLS Cities Attendance Pre and Post CWS Match.
8 56 S. F. Brown team, as was evidenced by the sheer number of Poland-supporting signs hung throughout the stadium and the overwhelming reaction when Poland scored to take a one-nil lead over the American team. It is not that soccer fans do not exist in American cities, but they, for the most part, follow their own teams in their own leagues, leaving MLS in the difficult position of recruiting from a mostly disinterested fan base. Thus, heavy media coverage of the matches might have pulled more fans from that limited fan base into the match, increasing the chance for long term converts to the sport and to MLS in particular. Given the lack of media coverage of the matches and the negligible effects of the Champions World series matches on MLS attendance, it can be safely argued that clearly, despite thoughts to the contrary, the Champions World series has yet to produce any tangible benefit to professional soccer in the United States. In the two cities that both possess an MLS franchise and hosted a Champions World match in 2004, the MLS franchise has not been able to capitalize on the large crowds of the series to benefit their own attendance. What is not clear is whether the Champions World series is viable in the long term. Attendance for the 2004 series was lower across the board as compared to In 2003, the overall average attendance for the series was 52,634. The 2004 series average attendance fell to 39,814. Of the seven cities visited by the series in 2003, three were selected to host matches in the 2004 series (Seattle, New York City and Philadelphia). In these cities, where more direct comparisons can be made, the average attendance dropped from a 2003 average of 73,701 to a 2004 average of only 39,999. It is likely that the 2003 series benefited from its novelty. However, it appears more likely that the novelty factor is working jointly with the Manchester United factor. In 2003 Seattle, New York and Philadelphia were all sites of Manchester United matches. In 2004, only New York hosted United. The 2003 Manchester game drew 79,005 fans, while the 2004 match drew 74,511. Manchester United will be touring Asia next summer, and thus will not be a part of the 2005 Champions World series. One would expect an even more marked drop in interest and attendance for any tour in There are several possible reasons that explain why the series may not benefit soccer in the United States in the long or short term. First, of the seven cities that hosted series matches in 2003, four also possess MLS franchises. In 2004, of the 11 series host cities, only two also hosted MLS franchises. It seems likely that the only way for soccer to ever catch a permanent hold in American sports culture is for the sport to have a viable professional presence in this country. Though MLS is expanding in 2005 into Salt Lake City, Utah, and adding a second team in Los Angeles, neither of those cities hosted Champions World series matches in At best, the Champions World series serves as a diversion for dedicated soccer fans that are unlikely to attend MLS games in the first place. At worst, the series highlights the disparity in the quality of play between top European clubs and that of MLS, which cannot benefit MLS in any way. Second, the Champions World series does not allow American sports fans to gain an attachment to any particular team, because neither team can be easily watched after they leave town. If the Champions World is ever to be able to benefit American soccer, it must involve American professional soccer teams. There is much potential
9 Soccer and Society 57 interest in having top American clubs play European sides, even if they are not of the calibre of Manchester United, Liverpool or Arsenal. The notion of having MLS teams playing European or South American sides in their home stadiums has much more long term potential benefit for American soccer than American fans watching two European clubs they are unlikely to see again for the next year. Having American clubs play European clubs combines the best of both elements into one format. It provides high quality European soccer with a team that fans can back in future matches. Finally, it has been noted that American sports fans tend to prefer American sports, that is, sports that they can identify closely with American players and American competitiveness (and possibly dominance). Thus, only a tour that involves American teams with American players is likely to spur interest in American soccer in the long term. It might be fruitful to put together a team of the best of the MLS players to play the touring European sides. Regardless, it seems impossible that soccer that does not involve American teams in any way is ever likely to make a significant impact on the fortunes of soccer in the United States. The results presented here, while clear in their implications, can only be interpreted as preliminary. There have simply not been very many matches in either city since the series matches were played. In Chicago, the Fire has played only four matches at home since Manchester United and Bayern played on 25 July. In New York, the MetroStars have played only three home matches since the trio of Champions World series matches. It is thus certainly impossible to interpret these attendance figures as completely representative. However, the largest attendance bump for those franchises could reasonably have been expected in the matches immediately following the series matches. Those numbers did not materialize for either team. It is therefore likely that the series matches indeed had no significant impact on the attendance of either franchise. In addition, the post series matches coincide with the training camps of National Football League teams. The NFL, in terms of revenue, television ratings and overall media coverage, occupies such a dominant position in the American sport pantheon, that it is possible that MLS attendance regularly experiences a drop during August. While that is well beyond the scope of this essay, it might indeed have an impact on the overall numbers of fans attending MLS games towards the end of July. Given previous work that highlights the history of American apathy towards soccer, and the work that indicates that American apathy may well be extended to other sports once thought of as American, it is doubtful that exhibitions between two non-american clubs, regardless of the level of soccer played, can ever have a significant positive impact on professional soccer in the United States, which is an ominous sign for soccer as a whole in the country. An increased level of participation at the youth level has not translated into higher ratings for soccer in the United States, nor has soccer been able to displace any one of the Big Three of American sports. The emergence and increasing popularity of the National Association for Stock Car Automobile Racing (NASCAR) has further crowded the sport landscape of the United States, making it even more difficult for soccer to break into the already saturated field in any meaningful way. Though MLS seems to have carved out a niche for itself, the fact remains that neither the league nor the teams (with one exception) can turn a profit.
10 58 S. F. Brown For MLS to have any hope of ever breaking into the American sporting pantheon, several events must transpire. First, the national team must remain competitive. Despite the time zone differential, the American national team s performance in Japan and South Korea during the 2002 World Cup generated a fair amount of publicity during their run (though nowhere near the levels of other quarterfinalist countries). Germany in 2006 will present even less of a problem for potential viewers in terms of time disparities, and the emergence of digital video recorders increase the chances that a productive American run during that tournament will be seen by many people in the United States. Failure to qualify for the tournament or even a performance like that in France in 1998 will have to be considered a major setback for American soccer. A productive run however, will possibly go a long way toward entrenching soccer further into the sporting landscape of the country. Second, MLS must become a destination for the best players in the world, rather than a point of origin for the best and most ambitious American players. Part of the allure of the Big Three American sports resides in the fact that they are at, or near, the top professional leagues in the world. Therefore, though the American baseball team did not qualify for Athens in 2004, Major League Baseball is still a destination of the world s top players. Likewise, the emergence of world basketball powers such as Argentina and Lithuania correspond with the emergence of players from those countries in the National Basketball Association, and the NBA is diversifying at a rapid rate, reflecting its attraction as a top professional league. MLS has the opposite problem in that it is not a destination league for the world s best, in the way that Italy s Serie A or the English Premiere League are. Until MLS can attract the same types of players as the other European professional leagues, Americans will continue to look upon soccer with indifference. It is also for this reason that future Champions World tours or other exhibitions of this nature must involve American teams. The final major element needed for the emergence of soccer into the collective American psyche is television. MLS ratings are and have always been very low. While this alone is enough to hurt league revenue, the lack of commercial slots available is likely to be even more damaging. The success of the NFL, the NBA and MLB revolves mostly around their network television contracts and not so much with attendance. It is possible that the addition of television timeouts could actually increase revenue for the league, even with extremely low ratings. These artificially built in breaks would at least allow for the diversification of corporate advertisers. If MLS could generate more revenue streams, it is possible that they could keep the best American players, and possibly begin attracting a few top players from around the world. Conclusion Soccer still faces an uphill climb in its efforts to become a financially and culturally viable American institution. While the Champions World series does not really represent an obstacle standing in the way of soccer in this country, it has in no way been helpful in increasing the profile of MLS, which seems necessary in establishing
11 Soccer and Society 59 soccer in the US. In order to be successful in the United States, soccer must have a professional league. The bigger, better and more financially secure that league is, the better are the chances that the top American players stay in their home country, which increases their exposure. American sports are driven by individual stars, even in team sports. Star athletes depend on media exposure. Thus, any American soccer star will need to play domestically. The latest, and most heavily covered of American soccer players, is the newly emerged Freddy Adu, who plays in MLS currently, and is one of the highest-paid players in American soccer history, though he is only 15 years of age. Despite being born in Ghana, it seems that Americans might be willing to embrace Adu as a great American soccer star. It remains to be seen what becomes of both his international and professional career; both of which will determine his overall status in American sports culture. If MLS can keep Adu in the US, playing in its league, then it is possible that his emergence could spur soccer in a way that it has not seen in almost a century. It is highly unlikely that the Champions World series will ever have the same potential impact. As long as it remains a financial boon for its promoters, though, it is likely to become a staple of the summer sports season in the United States. Notes  In this piece, the term soccer will be employed for what is conventionally known as football. This is to distinguish that sport from American football, which is generally known simply as football in the United States.  Specifically, Seattle, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Boston, Washington DC, New York City, and Philadelphia.  For probably the most extensive commentary on the sources and continuation of soccer s subservient status in American sports, see A.S. Markovits and S.L. Hellerman, Offside: Soccer and American Exceptionalism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001).  The name of the domestic professional league (MLS).  Sportsillustrated.cnn.com, Growing Appetite: US Soccer Revenues Grow Significantly since 1994 World Cup, posted 19 Aug. 2004, retrieved 7 Sept. 2004, 2004/soccer/08/19/us.marketap/.  The teams on the 2004 tour were Manchester United, Chelsea, Celtic, Bayern Munich, Liverpool, AS Roma, FC Porto, and Galatasaray.  2004 tour matches were played in Seattle, Chicago, Hartford, Philadelphia (two matches), Pittsburgh, Toronto (two matches), and New York City (three matches).  Fox Sports World has signed on to televise all of the matches of the Champions World series between  For 2004, those cities are Chicago and New York.  Markovits and Hellerman, Offside.  A rating represents the percentage of households in the United States tuned in to a particular airing of an event. Thus, a 0.6 rating means that six-tenths of one per cent of American households were tuned in to the game.  Major League Baseball s (MLB) championship series.  The National Football League s (NFL) championship game.  Sportsillustrated.cnn.com, Growing Appetite.  Ibid.  Ibid.