By J Hutcherson – WASHINGTON, DC (Aug 1, 2014) US Soccer Players – For Manchester United and Real Madrid, it means business as usual in the USA. Their motivations are well known. The summer tours, whether in the USA, Asia, or Oceania are about building their brand by making a local connection. That over 100,000 of their closest friends are willing to show up at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor only proves their points. The market here is willing, and Manchester United and Real Madrid are willing to provide.
Neither of them is alone in that approach. It’s not just the European clubs participating in the 2014 Guinness International Champions Cup. It’s every team willing to play part of their preseason far from Europe while making the connection with that larger fan base.
Of course, the elite of Europe redefine ‘larger fan base’ each time they travel abroad. When Michigan Stadium made the list as a venue for the 2014 Guinness International Champions Cup, it was with the idea that this game might set a new record for soccer.
There’s recent history at Michigan Stadium. The 2014 NHL Winter Classic put an announced crowd of 105,491 in that venue on a cold New Year’s Day to watch hockey. To say a sports spectacle becomes more about the event than the game is an easy crutch. However, it’s probably true when that many people show up to watch hockey in a stadium without giant video boards to see the puck.
Soccer makes it easier for a big crowd. The game takes most of the field, a ball is bigger than a puck, and it’s not freezing on the first Saturday in August. Still, there are some comparisons. Hockey is also a sport consistently in sales mode across the United States. There’s the feeling that the NHL has never really established itself in a lot of its non-Canadian markets. MLS backers like to argue that American pro soccer has already supplanted the NHL in the single table of most popular American pro sports.
However, 105,491 people aren’t likely to show up for an MLS regular season game. For soccer in this country, that takes more. Apparently, it takes two of the biggest clubs turned brands in world soccer playing in a college stadium 45 miles west of Detroit. It’s worth pointing out that there’s a perfectly good modern NFL stadium in downtown Detroit. One that hosted a Super Bowl a few years ago.
That’s not the point here. The creature comforts of modern stadiums lack the capacity to make Manchester United vs Real Madrid the bigger story. The Bernabeu back home in Madrid holds 81,044. Old Trafford has a listed capacity of 75,731. Michigan Stadium is the third biggest stadium in the world.
From a promotion perspective, the message is clear. Here’s what a game like Manchester United vs Real Madrid can do in the United States on August 2nd. It doesn’t take optimal weather or location. That’s a powerful statement for the potential fan base for professional soccer in the USA.
It’s too easy to make this a direct comparison with MLS and the North American lower divisions. There’s always a push during the summer soccer friendly season to try to turn at least some of the focus to what’s happening here domestically. Support your local club, regardless of whether or not if you even know your local club exists. Make that direct connection between professional soccer and local professional soccer, even if it means trading a sports event like Manchester United vs Real Madrid for a small stadium in a suburb.
That’s a tough sale, regardless of the sport. It’s a different category of interest, using a big event to put the focus on something hyper-local. Manchester United and Real Madrid have about as much in common with your local PDL club as that PDL club does with an NFL team. That they play the same sport is almost irrelevant.
Saturday’s game at Michigan Stadium brings the kind of focus we’re used to seeing in the European preseason. Sometimes, it only takes one giant of Europe playing a local side or representative XI to fill a stadium somewhere and set a new standard for overseas support. Only this time it’s here, at a college football stadium in Michigan with an expected crowd of around 109,000.
What that means for soccer in the USA is something long established. There’s always an audience for the big event, and that might not have as much to do with the sport itself as some of us would like.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him firstname.lastname@example.org.
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