THE AMERICAS are where the old and new worlds of football come face-to-face.
On one side of what was once a great divide is Latin America where football fever has been rife for more than a century, breeding talent that is exported worldwide. The Argentine Football Association was formed back in 1893 and its greatest players are celebrated around the world. Brazil has not only won the World Cup five times – more than any other nation – but has developed an almost mystical talent production line, with some 10,000 players now at clubs around the world.
However, head north to Mexico’s currently wall-less northern border with the United States and you stare across into a different landscape where flowers are blooming in what was, for generations, a football desert.
This is the New World – a world in which soccer is growing from the roots up and where the 25-year-old professional league reflects the sporting heritage of North America. Clubs from the US and Canada compete in the same closed league with costs controlled by salary caps. However, unlike other North American professional sports, the clubs are owned by the league and effectively licensed to operators.
After a sketchy start, soccer has hauled itself ahead of pro hockey in attendance and seen significant growth in franchise values. Average attendance in the 2016 Major League Soccer season was over 21,600, putting it seventh in the world, just behind the European giants and ahead of long-established leagues in Argentina and Brazil.
The emergence of Major League Soccer as a significant commercial force within its domestic market and beyond may ultimately come to be the catalyst for significant change in football across the Americas and, perhaps, even a gradual equalisation of the global soccer marketplace.
That is a vision expressed some time ago by Riccardo Silva, co-founder of the influential MP & Silva agency, which earlier this year was acquired by Chinese investors Everbright Securities and Baofeng Technology.
What Silva identified was the need for a way of harnessing the positive factors in soccer across North and South America and packaging it to create a brand that will generate attention and revenue that clubs need to fulfil their potential.
His solution was the creation of an Americas Champions League, contested by clubs from both the South American (Conmebol) and North American (Concacaf ) confederations and delivered to the exacting technical and commercial standards of the Uefa Champions League whilst offering truly significant prize money.
The concept is built on the belief that the Uefa Champions League did more than provide a competition and additional income for Europe’s top clubs; it elevated individual club brands onto the global stage.
There is an argument that once upon a time, great South American clubs like Boca Juniors, Independiente, Santos, Flamengo and Corinthians were as well recognised around the world as Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester United. However, the fact is that the commercial power is in Europe and clubs in the Americas lag behind.
Among those working to transform the vision for an Americas Champions League into a reality is the hugely influential former US senator George Mitchell (pictured), who was US President Bill Clinton’s Special Envoy to Northern Ireland during the establishment of the Good Friday Agreement. He was also influential in Middle East peace negotiations, chaired the Walt Disney Corporation and produced a crucial report into performance-enhancing drugs in Major League Baseball.
Mitchell is supremely well-connected and has a track record of opening doors and getting things done.
“I’m very excited to be part of the Americas Champions League (ACL) project,” he tells SportBusiness International. “The concept of top North American soccer clubs competing against top Central and South American clubs comes at the right moment for soccer’s continuing development in the US. ACL’s leaders are working hard to make it happen so that a deep and diverse international fan base can get to see the outstanding clubs in the Americas in a meaningful, authentic competition.
“With the Americas Champions League project, the clubs of the Americas will have the opportunity to elevate their brands and global commercial opportunities on a par with European clubs and the Uefa Champions League. The Americas’ international football traditions, legacies and extraordinary supporter base rank with the best in the world, but a solid platform to showcase Americas’ great soccer globally has not existed until now.”
On the face of it, soccer in his home country would be a significant beneficiary of the ACL.
“The American appetite for soccer always comes to light during the World Cups, and most recently with Copa America Centenario, and US commercial strength keeps coming ahead in terms of ticket sales, media-rights values and sponsorship activation,” he explains.
“Soccer is well positioned for substantial, sustainable growth generated by the growing diversity in US demographics and digital innovation and reach.
“The US currently has three main tournaments: MLS as a first-division league, NASL as the second-division and USL as the third division. This market for soccer is large and growing at a fast pace, but there is still plenty of room for expansion in terms of number of teams and number of competitions in the US and the entire Americas.”
Mitchell is one member of a high-profile team batting for ACL and it should come as little surprise that a politician has been selected for such a prominent role. This is a highly political project that will require the blessing of not only two confederations but their constituent leagues and clubs.
To start with, both confederations already operate international club competitions – the Copa Libertadores and the Concacaf Champions league – and instinct and history suggest they will be extremely protective of these competitions.
Then there are the leagues themselves and suggestions that MLS may baulk at giving up clubs it controls to a competition that it doesn’t. Despite its impressive performance against most standard sport business metrics – tickets, broadcast and sponsorship, a recent Deloitte report quoted MLS commissioner Don Garber as explaining that that the league and its clubs are posting “well north of $100m a year in enterprise losses.”
While nobody’s about to talk about specific figures ahead of funding being put in place, early press reports suggested that even first-round losers would earn a guaranteed minimum of about $5m.
With NFL teams criss-crossing the Atlantic, arguments about the strain of additional travel may not hold as much weight as they did a few years ago and the promoters of the concept are sure that there are sufficient gaps in the calendar for a 32-team knockout tournament rather than the 64-team event originally mooted. Half the teams would play only two well-rewarded games and even the winners would play only nine matches, assuming there would be a one-off final at a neutral venue.
Informal talks are said to have produced a positive response from the clubs and broadcasters.
Against that background SportBusiness International understands that negotiations over finance are at an advanced stage, with an announcement that full funding has been completed expected next year. That means that a kick-off date could be as early as February 2019 although there is a relaxed attitude towards creating deadlines. Despite the obvious financial benefits to clubs, there are a set of potentially tricky negotiations ahead and those driving the project won’t even enter formal discussions with any stakeholders until a clear pathway from vision to reality has been established.