SBJ/April 25 - May 1, 2011/Franchises

Real Salt Lake makes most of CONCACAF event

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Real Salt Lake has drawn strong attendance for CONCACAF Champions League games.
Real Salt Lake has parlayed its run in the CONCACAF Champions League — in the U.S., at least, a relatively under-the-radar continental club soccer tournament — into increased sponsorship, strong ticket sales and additional local exposure.

On Wednesday, Real Salt Lake finishes a two-game, most-goals final against Mexico’s Monterrey, with the winner advancing to the FIFA Club World Cup in December in Japan. Unlike MLS teams in the past, Real Salt Lake has put significant promotion behind the tournament, and club president Bill Manning credits its Champions League success for securing two new sponsors — international home-security firm Vivint and Ford Motor Co. — to six-figure, three-year deals.

“We feel like we’re the first [MLS] team to make this our No. 1 priority,” Manning said.

The club also has drawn strong attendance numbers for Champions League games. An October match against Mexico’s Cruz Azul sold out Rio Tinto Stadium with 20,463 fans; a March 1 quarterfinals game against the Columbus Crew netted 15,400; and a March 15 semifinal against Costa Rica’s Saprissa drew 16,888. Manning expects Wednesday’s game in Salt Lake City to sell out.

In comparison, the club’s average attendance in 2010 for MLS games was 17,095.

“Our fans have a sense of ownership with this tournament,” he said.

Officials with CONCACAF (the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football) hope that Real Salt Lake’s berth in the finals will boost the competition’s profile in the U.S. No MLS team has won the Champions League title in the competition’s three-year history.

“We’ve definitely moved the needle in Mexico,” said Italo Zanzi, CONCACAF’s deputy general secretary. “Real Salt Lake’s success is exactly what we needed to elevate the profile of this competition in [the U.S.].”

Zanzi said the federation has promoted the Champions League as the pinnacle of international soccer in North America. For 2010-11, its portfolio of eight corporate partners includes Nike, Travelodge, T-Mobile and MasterCard, and it has television partnerships with Fox Soccer Channel and Univision. According to Univision, the competition has drawn nearly 11 million total viewers.

CONCACAF launched the Champions League in 2008 as a replacement to the previous CONCACAF Champions Cup, which ran from 1962 to 2008. Only two U.S. teams — D.C. United in 1998 and the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2000 — ever won the Champions Cup, and sources close to the story said both tournaments have struggled to catch on with casual MLS fans.

“[Champions League] is a huge priority for the teams, but I think there is an education process that still needs to happen with the casual fans,” said John Guppy, owner of soccer marketing firm Gilt Edge Soccer. “From a corporate standpoint, I think many companies are in the same realm as the casual fan.”

MLS has helped promote the Champions League and canceled the 2011 SuperLiga competition, which pitted MLS teams against Mexican clubs, in part because that tournament took exposure away from the CONCACAF competition. MLS also rescheduled an April 23 game against Philadelphia to better Real Salt Lake’s chances against Monterrey and has promoted the finals on its website.

“CONCACAF got more and more committed to a continental tournament with the Champions League, which we’re very supportive of,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said last month during a conference call.

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