In October, I had the pleasure of attending the Leaders in Football conference in London, a gathering of some of soccer’s most important figures, from managers to club presidents to federation secretaries general.
The facilities were as first-class as the guest list, the glittering halls of Stamford Bridge stadium, home to powerhouse team Chelsea FC. I also was lucky enough to get a ticket to Chelsea’s home match against Liverpool FC, another great club.
Needless to say, it was a sellout crowd and the atmosphere was explosive, with the Blues putting on a great display against the visiting Reds with an emphatic 2-0 victory. Interestingly, the traveling contingent of Liverpool fans was louder at times than the home crowd, which was not quiet by any stretch. That just goes to show the passion that stirs in the hearts of fans in England and around the planet. And whether it is because of their sporting passion or business acumen, these two clubs are not only followed by hundreds of thousands in their home cities, but by millions worldwide.
Somehow, I found myself among these august personages at this legendary stadium in West London. In the midst of all the excitement and the celebrity VIPs, I couldn’t help but see first-hand the billions of dollars that are at work in this industry and the vast potential the sport has in our nascent American consciousness. Soccer, which I prefer to call “futbol” (for a fuller explanation, see my previous column here, ) has been followed for decades in this country by a passionate and knowledgeable minority. Now, the general sports industry in the U.S. has finally realized the business potential of the beautiful game.
Commentators galore have labeled futbol “the sport of the future” in the U.S. for more than 40 years. I know patience is a virtue, but even that slow a pace would daunt any saint. What I think has changed in the mind of the American sports executive is that we now realize that futbol needs to be run, not only as a sport and a passion, but as a business.
Failed efforts in the past, like the original North American Soccer League of the 1970s, created a great product but just couldn’t be sustained commercially. The reasons for the NASL’s failure were many and more complex than I could discuss here, but the professional game never quite hit its stride in this country. Only through the efforts of newer leagues like Major League Soccer and the recently-relaunched NASL has pro futbol apparently learned from past mistakes and developed a long-term plan for the sport’s success as a business.
But futbol is much more than the professional side of the sport. Around the U.S., youth and amateur groups have played by the millions for decades. The folks who ran these groups were somehow successful in making futbol a business. Some argued that the only way to make money in America was to run a youth club, where middle and upper-income parents paid good amounts for their kids to learn the world’s game.
Many an immigrant with a foreign accent and mediocre soccer skills made a good living in the U.S. selling their wares to the millions of kids who wanted to kick a ball. Other successful ventures include the thousands of adult amateur leagues nationwide that host countless games on week nights and weekends.
Last, but certainly not least, is the very lucrative business of futbol on television, as well as the hundreds of international exhibitions that take place on American soil each year. Most are surprised to learn that the USA’s hosting of the FIFA World Cup in 1994 still holds the attendance record of any World Cup, and the tournament only had 24 teams back then (it now has 32). No surprise that we’re trying to get that magnificent event back here in 2018 or 2022, with estimates saying that we could sell more than five million tickets.
Futbol has always been run differently in the U.S. than in the rest of the world. Perhaps it’s due to the American penchant for separating itself from its Old World colonizers or that annoying gringo xenophobia and ignorance of all things “foreign”. Whatever the reason, good ole’ Yankee ingenuity and values have been applied to futbol, often for good and sometimes for ill, both on and off the field.
international sports executives have always admired American expertise in marketing, sales, and customer service. U.S. club and league execs in virtually every sport have turned the science of promoting a sports team and capturing every possible ancillary revenue dollar into an art form. Soccer is no exception. MLS and its commercial entity, Soccer United Marketing, have control over the sponsorship, television rights, and other revenues that companies put into professional soccer in the U.S.
Clubs have become quite adept at executing the principles that have proven so successful in American football, baseball, and basketball. Other companies like Traffic Sports, Latin America’s largest futbol marketing and promotions firm, are attempting to replicate its success in North America. Even the biggest clubs in Europe look admiringly on American know-how in creating a great fan experience and generating sponsorship and marketing revenues.
So, the business of futbol in the U.S. hasn’t been a total wash after four decades of hype, with its share of successes and failures in many different areas.
Atlanta attorney Scott Moran is a partner with Berman Fink Van Horn P.C. He is heavily involved with Atlanta‘s efforts to relaunch a Major League Soccer team and bring the FIFA World Cup here.