The last of the visiting European soccer clubs on preseason tour of the United States will go home this week, their on-field ambitions satisfied and their pockets stuffed with cash.
The appetite for these inconsequential affairs remains robust: a U.S.-record soccer crowd of 109,318 at Michigan Stadium, a nearly full Rose Bowl on a weeknight and healthy turnouts in non-traditional markets. In all, about three dozen matches involving foreign clubs will have been staged here and in Canada this summer.
Fans do not seem to mind that these feasts are full of empty calories. The colorful packaging hides bland ingredients and low nutrition. It’s like craving Italian and ending up at a chain restaurant with inflated prices.
As long as demand remains high, however, the marketing chefs will oblige. For now, the public accepts absences and unlimited substitutions. Seeing Manchester United and Real Madrid in person is satisfying enough.
The question is whether, at some point, U.S. fans begin demanding greater substance. The American consumer is developing a more sophisticated soccer palate: From the World Cup and Premier League on TV to MLS and national team matches in person, Americans are devouring more futbol than ever before.
Will they continue turning out — and paying out — for games that lack urgency and edge? If they do, there is no incentive to change a successful formula. But if the audience begins tiring of friendlies and contrived tournaments, teams and promoters will need to begin seeking alternative plans. And the most appealing are matches that have meaning.
The NFL plays an annual game in London. The NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball have gone abroad for regular season games. So why not the Premier League in the United States?
The key difference is, those U.S.-based leagues are seeking to make inroads overseas. With live TV coverage in every corner of the globe, the Premier League is already the world’s most popular sports circuit. With so many fans tuning in, does the league really need to venture out? It does if it’s concerned about losing ground to Spain’s La Liga, Germany’s Bundesliga and Italy’s Serie A.
If a league were to play authentic games in the United States, the circumstances would have to be just right: a flexible point on the calendar; proper venue with grass, suitable field width and no football markings; agreeable clubs; and at least one high-profile participant.
European leagues use a balanced schedule — everyone plays one another home and away — so competitive issues would arise. Would, say, Liverpool sacrifice the tradition and advantages of playing Aston Villa on a Saturday afternoon at Anfield for the opportunity to play in Philadelphia? Unlikely.
A more fair arrangement would have the same two clubs to play one another twice in the United States. But if one is more popular than the other, it’s really two “home” matches for one side. And would those teams be willing to make two transatlantic round trips? Again, unlikely. It would also violate deep-seated tradition.
A more realistic scenario is staging a cup final here. Not the FA Cup — too much tradition to leave London. The English League Cup, the third most-important trophy behind the Premier League and FA Cup, might be an appealing event in the spring. As would a championship shipped over from Germany, Spain or Italy.
The Italians have been the most adventurous on this front, playing the SuperCup (Serie A champion vs. Italian Cup winner) in Washington (1993), Tripoli (2002), New York (2003) and Beijing three times. That Italian game, though, falls in the preseason.
In 2008, the Premier League proposed a “Game 39” — an additional regular season game for each of the 20 clubs at 10 neutral sites abroad on the same weekend. It faced stiff opposition from many fronts. “Football cannot be like the Harlem Globetrotters or a circus,” said Sepp Blatter, FIFA’s ringmaster. “You must keep the national identity of the clubs.”
Unless, of course, there are easy millions to make every offseason.