Dave Hannigan: European teams are cracking soccer in US
Barcelona may play Girona in Miami while jerseys are becoming a lot more common
James and Mbappe exchange shirts last August.
Arriving at the AT&T Center to play the San Antonio Spurs last weekend, LeBron James caused a bit of a stir with his fashion choices. A Beto O’Rourke hat, showing his support for the Democratic challenger trying to unseat Senator Ted Cruz in next Tuesday’s election, made news across Texas. The rest of the world, however, was more taken by the familiar red and blue shirt peeking out from under his denim.
There was no clarification his Paris St. Germain jersey was the outsized number 10 presented to him by Kylian Mbappe in the French capital back in August but for a club desperately trying to break the American market, that scarcely mattered.
Even if European shirts of all stripes are beloved by hipsters in these parts, it can be safely assumed James plucked the PSG number out of his wardrobe for commercial rather than cool reasons. He has a lifetime contract with Nike and the photograph of him in a shirt they are hoping to hawk millions of over here was canny product placement, especially given the French outfit recently opened its first office in New York.
That he was merely the latest in a slew of celebrity influencers, from Beyonce to Justin Timberlake, to have been fortuitously captured wearing the club’s distinctive colours epitomises their owners’ (Qatar Sports Investments) calculated strategy to become, ahem, a lifestyle brand in the USA.
There’s a lot of that kind of stuff about just now. Spain’s La Liga appear willing to go to the Court of Arbitration for Sport to fight Fifa for the right to allow Barcelona’s home fixture against Girona to take place in Miami rather than Camp Nou on January 26th. A sentence that captures so much wrong with the sport. Despite opposition from the world governing body, complaints by Spanish fans and questions being asked by the players’ union about the logistics of the proposal, La Liga president Javier Tebas is adamant that the Florida match is “vital to our strategy there”. He already has a contract with an American sports promotion group to make this an annual event for the next 15 years.
It’s probably not an accident Barcelona chose the game against Girona, a team everybody figured would be amenable to the idea since they are partly owned by Manchester City, another football club turned multi-national corporation with a vested interest in America through its New York City FC franchise. City aren’t alone in staking out the media capital of the world either. Four years after Bayern Munich established a base here, the Bundesliga just opened an office on Park Avenue, and part of their remit is to help the other German clubs gain a foothold in this country.
While disrespectful noises are made about growing the game (as if this country just discovered the sport), and Barcelona already have an academy system up and running, the increased interest in North America is about greenbacks rather than grassroots. More than a decade has passed since European powerhouses began regularly spending chunks of their pre-seasons in America, a practice made extremely lucrative by event junkies turning out in huge numbers to watch substandard fare and squads often shorn of their marquee names. Witness the 71,000 or so at Washington DC’s FedEx Field last summer to see what was essentially a clash between Juventus and Real Madrid’s reserve teams.
It’s not like these fans don’t know they are being sold a bill of goods. They have access to more televised soccer relatively cheaply than just about any demographic on the planet, an average of 50-plus games from the top leagues in Europe every weekend. That availability probably explains why an American website that sells Champions’ League shirts recently produced an infographic using customer spending habits to show that Manchester United are huge in Idaho, Liverpool have the South Dakota market cornered, and Spurs, apparently, rule Wisconsin.
Earlier this year, Deloitte estimated that matchday revenues make up around 20 per cent of annual income for Europe’s richest clubs. Around about the same time, it emerged that for the World Cup in Russia more match tickets were sold to people living in the USA than any other country apart from the hosts. A pair of statistics that explain why the American chain Dick’s Sporting Goods currently has racks of pre-printed Neymar PSG shirts hanging by the entrance inside its stores.
Even the smaller European outfits are not immune to trying to tap into this enormous market. Last May, FC St Pauli of Bundesliga 2, embarked on a 10-day American tour. Of course, befitting the cult club known for its left-wing politics, anti-fascist campaigns, and skull and crossbones emblem, their odyssey was a little more unorthodox. In Detroit, they made official team appearances at Jack White’s 3rd Man record store, and at the City Distillery where Levi’s, one of their sponsors, were on hand to customize fans’ denim jackets with team badges.
Afterwards, supporters, players and officials repaired to St. Andrew’s Hall to see Rise Against, a Chicago punk band famous for its progressive politics and songs protesting, among other things, homophobia, political corruption, animal abuse and climate change. They played a set that included a stonking version of “Re-Education (through labour)”. Not the type of anthem the men involved in Qatar Sports Investments would like to hear. Not the type of place you’d find a PSG shirt either.