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Volume 23 No. 13
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European clubs use ICC to build their following in the U.S.

Former Man U manager Louis van Gaal signs autographs for fans ahead of a match during the 2015 International Champions Cup.
European soccer clubs have put down deeper roots in the United States in the last few years, adding U.S.-based sponsors and local academies, recruiting American players and even buying into stateside clubs.

But rather than venturing out into the country on their own, they’re increasingly returning to the International Champions Cup, with the view that the property is their best entry point into the U.S. market. The event announced its schedule for this summer last week.

“We have a product that while it is on television every weekend here in the U.S., it actually plays more than 5,000 miles away,” said Arno Trabesinger, Americas managing director for FC Barcelona, one of eight European clubs that will play in the ICC in the U.S. this summer. “We see big opportunities still for soccer in the U.S., and for us.”

Since Barcelona toured the U.S. in 2015 as part of the ICC, the club has opened a New York office, headed by Trabesinger, and extended its partnership with Procter & Gamble’s Gillette brand, and it is discussing a U.S.-focused investment in women’s soccer.

“It adds a lot of relevancy for the soccer development that European clubs are doing in the United States, which is not just about developing our brand but also developing the sport,” said Francesco Calvo, FC Barcelona’s chief revenue officer. “Having the team here elevates all of our activities, whether it is our foundation, our soccer schools and efforts into women’s soccer.”

David Tyler, CEO of ICC parent company Relevent Sports, said that even as recently as a few years ago, clubs needed to be persuaded to give up their “sort of independence” in planning their own tours across the U.S. and instead becoming part of the group under the ICC umbrella. The ICC launched in the U.S. in 2013, and has since expanded outside of the country to include tournaments in China and Singapore. All combined, 14 European clubs have tours set around ICC events this year.

“Our goal was ultimately to make everything about the clubs, and it’s working for them on many different levels now — it’s helping them build their brands, helping them build their fan bases, and it works on the sporting side as well … as a good launchpad into their season,” he said.

Other international powerhouses participating in the event his year, such as Manchester United, Manchester City and Real Madrid, have also frequented the U.S. as part of the ICC. For Manchester City, which has a year-round connection with the U.S. through owner City Football Group’s ownership of New York City FC, the allure of the marketplace and the matches themselves made the ICC an attractive destination.

“When the Abu Dhabi Group acquired the team in 2008, we targeted Asia and North America as the two primary markets to build our fan base and our connection with this part of the world, and ultimately to try to grow our revenues as well,” said Damian Willoughby, senior vice president of partnerships for City Football Group. “Clearly, it’s been a lot easier sell to our sporting departments to go back to the U.S. given the quality of training facilities, stadiums and matches, and we still believe there is a tremendous amount of growth and headway in the marketplace as well.”

In the last seven years, Tottenham Hotspur has visited the U.S. five times, mainly playing MLS clubs, and participating in the league’s 2015 All-Star Game. But it will play in the ICC in the U.S. for the first time after playing in its Australia tournament last year, a level of competition that, Ledley King, a former player and now club ambassador, feels is important for the club.

“To compete against the best players and the best teams in Europe is not only important for the players, but also for the club, as this is the level we see ourselves — alongside Champions League clubs,” he said.

With the ICC now looking to deliver even bigger matches this year — highlighted by the Barcelona-Real Madrid match in Miami as well as the Manchester Derby, Tyler said he foresees interest from bigger European clubs in making the trip back to the U.S. with the ICC in the coming years.

“Even as we announce 2017 today, I’ve had discussions with three or four clubs who said, ‘OK, let’s start talking about what cities we’re going to next year,’” he said.