Premier League pilgrims preaching to the converted in United States
Manchester City and Liverpool playing in the International Champions Cup at Yankee Stadium in New York’s Bronx district on Wednesday. Photograph: Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
Carlos Sepulveda is a 28-year-old LA Galaxy fan who has just watched his team suffer a 7-0 hiding by Manchester United at Pasadena’s Rose Bowl.
He paid $115 (£67) to be one of an 86,432 crowd who were eager to watch what was, essentially, a meaningless friendly, though with tickets reaching a scarcely believable $433.59 – the cheapest was $35 – Sepulveda believes seeing Wayne Rooney and company compensated.
“It was a little pricey,” he says. “Normally I would pay 40, 50 bucks but because it is Manchester United that attracted me a little, yeah. I just came to see the Galaxy, I’m a Galaxy fan.”
United’s summer tour of the US is taking in at least four matches in four states. It is occurring in the middle of the Major League Soccer season. Yet stateside there is an intense interest in the attractions of the Premier League. Liverpool and Manchester City are in the same International Champions Cup competition as United, while Arsenal were in New York last week for a one-off match with the Red Bulls when, again, ticket prices touched $500.
The Premier League, as the most commercially successful football competition in the world, is in a powerful position to exploit the US market but in its pursuit of the dollar there is serious competition from Spain, with La Liga also in America this summer. On Sunday the champions, Atlético Madrid, defeated the San Jose Earthquakes, 4-3 on penalties, in the latest match of the self-styled LFP World Challenge, which is a joint strategy between La Liga and the Spanish Institute for Foreign Trade that “aims to help promote Spain overseas”.
Javier Tebas, La Liga’s president, told the Guardian: “Every year one or two teams will come to the US. We are already looking ahead to next year and planning to expand – our goal is to bring two clubs and play six games. The World Cup showed what passion there is for football in the US and we are over here at a great time.”
At the last census 53 million Americans were Hispanic, a constituency who often favour “soccer” over the NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball and hockey, with fans such as Sepulveda those the Premier League – and La Liga – hope to attract.
“I just came back from the World Cup and I’ve always preferred soccer,” he says. “I’m Mexican, my dad was a soccer player, my grandfather. It’s just in my family.”
Last Saturday United played at the mile-high altitude of Denver, where Roma were defeated 3-2 before 54,117 fans in their first ICC group match, before Louis van Gaal’s team flew to Washington where three days later they beat Internazionale, 5-3 on penalties, at FedEx Field in front of a 61,238 crowd.
The meeting between United and Real Madrid and the former Old Trafford favourite Cristiano Ronaldo, in Michigan on Saturday, was a 110,000 sellout in just two hours. Liverpool’s 1-0 defeat by Roma at Fenway Park, the home of the Boston Red Sox, the famous baseball franchise owned by the Anfield club’s proprietor, Fenway Sports Group, was also sold out.
NBC, which is about to cover its second Premier League season, broadcast the meeting in New England. Arlo White, the network’s lead commentator, who worked at the BBC for 10 years, says: “Liverpool want to tap the American market and obviously they’re owned by FSG so there’s a lot of synergy there.”
White, who formerly commentated for the MLS’s Seattle Sounders, believes a cosmopolitan blend are watching Premier League teams in the States. “There’s a real mixture. They may be expatriates or fans who are Bostonians who follow the teams in bars or on TV early on a Saturday or Sunday morning. A lot of fans will have travelled over to follow the tour – it’s pretty high profile for LFC. And I think it’s general sports fans from the area, maybe one or two who have got into soccer as a result of the US doing very well in the World Cup. So there’s a real mixture.
“Certainly in training there was a large, vociferous crowd who were lapping up everything that Liverpool did, demanding all the autographs they could get – the enthusiasm was incredible. And the game was completely [PACKED]– a crowd of between 30,000 and 35,000.”
Outside Denver’s Sports Authority Field, David Webb is wearing a United T-shirt, having just seen the victory over Roma. He says: “My wife and I were journeying back to Montreal and she caught wind that United were playing here so we thought we’d definitely want to come and see them. The cost – $61.50 – is, comparatively speaking, for what you get, good value.”
Webb says watching United in America features little tribalism. “You see shirts from teams all over the globe in the crowd,” he says. “I’m not sure how that would go over in the UK but there’s a festive part here that I suspect doesn’t exist in the UK. Purely on an economic basis, soccer is becoming more and more popular because it’s inexpensive, relative to, say, hockey or American Football.”
As MLS’s continual growth since the inaugural season in 1996 attracts an increasing number of leading players, including David Beckham, Thierry Henry and Frank Lampard, could the invasion of Premier League clubs – and those from other European leagues – threaten the MLS?
Anthony Ikpa, a 27-year-old from Kansas, believes the opposite is true. “It’s more a showcase because people want to watch Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, ” he says. “And being able to watch those guys next to MLS players, I think there’s more of an attendance for a local rivalry.
“I know the games I’ve gone to have been Inter v somebody else or Chelsea v somebody else. I’m not interested in the MLS games but the people who do attend MLS will be there.
“On top of that there will be people like me who don’t want to waste their money going to the MLS who will only go to see the Premier League and other clubs.”
White believes the trend will continue. “It’s the standard of facilities, the ease of travel – there are great distances but it’s easy to travel round the States, particularly if you’re chartering planes – the quality of the hotels; everything is laid on. It isn’t that far away from the UK compared to Australia.
“And the bottom line is clubs are chasing the dollar to be the most popular team in the US. Like the NFL fans in the UK, there’s a lot of very dedicated fans here, who go out of their way – they might go to bars or pubs or sit on their sofas watching the action. It’s hard to convey to people in England just how into it they are.
“They are Liverpool fans absolutely to the bone, or they bleed Man United, Arsenal – and their passion and knowledge of the team and clubs rivals fans that live in Salford or Islington or Kirkby.”