August 11, 2012
By Charles Cuttone
What’s the point? Too many meaningless games
PHILADELPHIA---Now that the travelling road show that is the “Summer of Soccer” has packed up its tent and headed home to play games that count, I say good riddance.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I don’t enjoy seeing Real Madrid, Chelsea, Celtic and AC Milan once in a while. But all these meaningless games every year have begun to wear thin.
Ten years ago, when a private company put on a series of games, they drew large excited crowds to football stadiums all across the country. The following year, they doubled the number of games in their series and teams they brought over, playing games in close proximity to each other a day or two apart, and went bankrupt in the process.
Seems like those that don’t learn from history are destined to repeat it. Not that Summer of Soccer impresario Soccer United Marketing is in financial peril, but there were some soft spots in the attendance for this year’s events.
Some 30 international friendly games were played in North America this summer with over a dozen teams crisscrossing the continent, that on top of the already busy schedule of MLS, U.S. Open Cup and CONCACAF Champions League games. Some of the games drew excellent crowds, like the 57,748 that filled Yankee Stadium in Wednesday night to see AC Milan get trounced by Real Madrid. Four days later in Philadelphia, though, 34,018 showed up for the Galacticos’ game against Celtic, not a poor crowd, but certainly the smallest to ever see an international friendly at Lincoln Financial Field. Less than 90 miles separates the two stadiums, making the iconic venue of Yankee Stadium a better draw, I am guessing, than a football stadium. And then there was DC United’s July 28 friendly against Paris St-Germain, played on the same day that Premiership rivals Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur faced off in nearby Baltimore. The announced crowd at RFK Stadium was only 13,176.
Ostensibly, teams come over here for three reasons: to train for their upcoming seasons (although Celtic was pulled from Europe after opening its season and playing Champions League qualifiers); to make money; and to build their brands. In most cases, building the sport in North America is not very high on their list of priorities. But MLS and SUM should care. They are the caretakers of the game here, at least commercially.
While they can’t stop other promoters from putting on games and potentially oversaturating the market -- that would be a violation of antitrust laws, a battle that has already been fought and lost in court -- MLS and SUM can make sure the teams they bring over are prepared to really help deepen the roots of the sport. Not by holding closed-door or by-sponsor-invite-only practices, but by putting on clinics and maybe even speaking to the press.
Some teams get that. Manchester United has been pretty cooperative through all of its US tours, and Manager Alex Ferguson is more willing to hold a postgame press conference in the States than at home. On Saturday, while both Jose Mourinho and Celtic Manager Neil Lennon gave postgame press conferences, only one player from each team spoke to the media. Last Wednesday at Yankee Stadium it was slightly better, with three players, including Cristiano Ronaldo, deigning to speak.
Not a great impression. The media not being able to even get a quote or two from the likes of Ronaldo or Kaka, leaves a sour taste, and certainly doesn’t help grow the game.
Granted, no amount of gladhanding or approachability will help preserve the air of specialness that drew consistently huge crowds to games when the prospect of a Real Madrid match in your home city seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity rather than a midsummer ritual only slightly more exotic than a trip to the beach. But some level of off-the-field outreach, even if it’s just giving a few quotes to reporters postgame, is part of the U.S. sports culture, and should be respected by the teams that are over here filling their coffers.