Away from the bright lights of mega transfers, superstar coaches swapping jobs and the fevered preparations for Europe’s glitziest leagues, there is a lot to be learned about the future landscape of the sport of soccer this upcoming weekend.
This tournament represents a departure from your typical American jaunt by a European juggernaut. In the past, clubs would hop the pond, play a few half-hearted games here against their continental peers, or a local Major League Soccer team or two with a young squad and a smattering of first-team stars and call it a week. Some games were fun, most weren’t. Some games drew well, many didn’t. Overall it made for a bland experience for everybody involved.
Some tried another approach and moved their domestic super cup – a season-opening trophy game between last year’s league and cup winners, which every European country has – to our shores. But ahead of last year’s French Trophée des Champions between Olympique Lyon and Montpellier, organizers literally couldn’t give tickets away. So it’s being played in Gabon this year.
For the last few years, Major League Soccer’s World Football Challenge took the first stab at formalizing the incoherent mishmash of stateside friendlies by applying a league format to it. But some teams played twice as many games as others and hardly anybody could work out who had actually won the thing. So that didn’t quite resonate either.
Now, the International Champions Cup, which superimposes a real tournament structure on these summertime footballing festivities, is unfolding. On paper, it’s a good idea. And if it works, and Europe’s elite come to take the ICC seriously, and the local markets take an interest, it could enrich the soccer calendar.
With a proper preseason competition, soccer teams would have a far more valuable barometer for their prospects heading into the season. It could conceivably become their equivalent of the highly-regimented and telling preseasons in college basketball, Major League Baseball and the National Football League. Soccer doesn’t have the preseason classics or spring training or the exhibition season. Soccer clubs play a haphazardly aggregated friendly schedule against some very good and some very bad teams, fairly well following the money. This tournament could fill a void.
But the interests Europe’s clubs have vested in this venture succeeding far exceed the benefits of having a more constructive preseason. Economic austerity in their home countries makes global branding more important than ever. Consider that of the European teams involved in the ICC, AC and Inter Milan have both been racked by financial issues; Valencia has been broke for a good decade and Real Madrid may soon lose the stranglehold it shares with Barcelona on the rich broadcast rights to the Spanish league. Some two decades after the National Basketball Association discovered the virtues of an internationally appreciated product, soccer’s mega clubs are catching on. It’s no wonder most friendlies are now played in emerging markets after all.
Which is to say that a time could come where some very big clubs might well need the income from this tournament and the marketing spoils it proffers.
If the ICC takes off, the repercussions for MLS and the accompanying damage to the domestic game could be considerable though. MLS lives and indeed thrives by the grace of being live. Their television rights and ratings are nigh on worthless. But the crowds drawn to the stadiums continue to trend upwards. Eclipsing 18,000 per game last year was no mean feat and puts the league among the 10 best-attended in the world. The in-person experience is plainly the product, not the broadcast of those games. But what if the ICC succeeds and inevitably expands?
MLS could have a serious summer competitor on its hands. The popularity of European club soccer in America is well charted. If fans get the chance to consistently see their favorite teams in person in the middle of the MLS season, will interest in going to their local MLS club erode?
Certainly, there are a great many variables here and a lack of empirical evidence relegates us to practicing in conjecture. The International Champions Cup could fail to catch anybody’s attention and end up as one of the many things tried and failed here. But if it doesn’t, it could just as easily alter soccer’s landscape, both here and in Europe.
And this weekend, we should get a better sense of which way things are leaning.