SBJ/20090126/This Week's News

Ticket revenue takes a back seat in U.S. Soccer’s venue choice

The U.S. Soccer Federation isn’t exactly buying a win, but it will try to do the next best thing when its men’s national team plays rival Mexico in a World Cup qualifier Feb. 11.

Instead of playing the match in an NFL stadium, the organization will sacrifice an estimated $1 million to $1.5 million in potential gate revenue in order to play before a smaller, more supportive U.S. crowd at 24,700-seat Columbus Crew Stadium.

Five out of the last six U.S.-Mexico meetings on U.S. soil have been sellouts. A friendly at Houston’s Reliant Stadium in February 2008 drew 70,103 spectators and generated approximately $3.5 million in gate revenue.

Games in Houston have sold out but
drawn many Mexican team fans.

But the game in Columbus is expected to generate between $2 million and $2.5 million. Tickets for the game go on sale Wednesday and range in price from $48 to $250.

“In the economic environment we’re in and in the pre-eminent game of the year, it’s never easy (to give up revenue), but it’s an easy decision in this case because the most important thing we do is qualifying for the World Cup,” said U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati. “[Qualifying for the World Cup is] so central to our mission that even if it didn’t add commercial value, it would still override all of those issues.”

The U.S., along with Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico and Trinidad & Tobago, is competing in the 10-game round-robin format through Oct. 14, with the top three teams automatically advancing to the World Cup.

U.S. Soccer selects the location of World Cup qualifiers based on a series of criteria, including expected fan support, ease of travel, a solid playing surface and familiarity.

The organization reportedly weighed playing Mexico in Salt Lake City, Seattle and Columbus. Salt Lake City and Seattle were ruled out in part because the markets would mean longer flights and greater jet lag for U.S. players on European club teams. Columbus provided a shorter flight, a good playing surface, the same cold weather that U.S. players are accustomed to in Europe and a familiar environment for players.

The U.S. has played seven games in Columbus since it opened in 1999 and has never lost. It has four wins and three ties there. Because of the stadium’s size, U.S. Soccer also wields more control over ticket sales. The majority of tickets will be sold to U.S. Soccer members and fan clubs. The remainder of the tickets will be sold to the general public.

“If we play in a large stadium, it’s quite likely we’ll play in a venue with a crowd that’s at best 50-50 (Mexico and U.S. fans),” Gulati said. “That’s not an advantage for us.”

The selection created some challenges for ESPN and Univision, which are televising the game.

ESPN was expecting a game on the West Coast like in 2007 and 2008 and had reserved a 9 p.m. programming window on ESPN2. But when Columbus was selected and an earlier kickoff was set, the network had to find an alternative. It weighed putting the game on ESPN Classic before bumping a 7 p.m. Dayton-Xavier basketball game off of ESPN2 to make room for the U.S.-Mexico match.

A later game would have been more favorable for Univision, as well. Because the population of Hispanics of Mexican origin is greater on the West Coast than East, a later start could have helped Univision’s ratings.

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