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Most Americans won’t watch biggest TV sports event of 2011: UEFA Champions League

What if this year’s Super Bowl finalists qualified for broader multi-country tournament – paring the top teams from pro football leagues around the world? Football has no such reach; but futbol does. Unfortunately, this year’s UEFA Champions League is the best event most Americans will miss.

In 2009, a soccer game became the first single sporting event to surpass the Super Bowl in terms of viewership. About 109 million people watched Barcelona (Spain) beat Manchester United (England) 2-0 in the 2009 UEFA final. The next title game of the every-two-year UEFA Champions League is on May 28 in London’s Wembley Stadium. The Round of 16 is under way and hits a critical point this week. Far more people will watch the UEFA championship game than the 111 million for Super Bowl 45. To add drama, both the 2009 finalists are in danger of being upset in the quarterfinals being held this week.

Why should UEFA matter to Americans? First, you must understand the importance of European club soccer to the sport and world.  FIFA, the world’s governing body, is divided into six continental confederations. By far the biggest and strongest in terms of club-level wealth and influence is the Union of European Football Associations, almost called by its French acronym, UEFA (pronounced ew-AY-fa). 

Most of the top players spend time in European leagues because of the salaries available from the world’s wealthiest football clubs, especially in England, Spain, Germany and Italy.  And since UEFA oversees most of the national soccer associations of Europe, its Champions League series draws huge interest globally.

The genius of the Champions League is matching professional clubs instead of national teams, as in the every-four-year FIFA World Cup. Since any club in any country can bid on any player in the world, you hugely internationalize the appeal – and marketing reach – of UEFA teams beyond their geographic borders.  It’s even called the “transfer” market instead of “free agents.” Think of it as talent on loan from the soccer gods.

A few examples from the UEFA Round of 16:

  • Cameroon’s star striker is the tournament’s leading scorer, playing for Italian club Inter Milan.
  • An Argentine superstar is leading defending champion Barcelona of Spain.
  • England’s Manchester United is anchored by a standout Serbian defender.
  • A Swedish striker is the top scorer for Italian club AC Milan.
  • French team Lyon is led by a Brazilian midfielder.
  • Portugal’s national team captain is a key player for Spain’s Real Madrid.
  • Spanish midfielders are leading German club Shalke 04 and English club Arsenal.
  • You get the picture.

Because of the broad global interest, an entire cottage industry has arisen around speculating and analyzing soccer’s transfer market. Think Carmelo Anthony going to the New York Knicks in America’s National Basketball Association was a big deal? England’s Chelsea signed Spanish star Fernando Torres to a record contract worth about $80 million just before the UEFA deadline. Speculation is still rampant on who won and lost in the pre-UEFA maneuvering. The positive side of additional coverage, of course, is we also get stories on player “WAGS” (wives and girlfriends), with lots of bikini photos. The British tabloids get it right on some things.

Of all the team sports, soccer has most successfully marketed its products internationally. Certainly a number of individual sports have cultivated global appeal, in particular golf and tennis. And semi-pro sports festivals like the Olympics always have wide interest. But soccer provides a level playing field for professional player development, allowing even small countries such as Paraguay and The Netherlands to field competitive national teams.

With that kind of solid fan base, you can guarantee broad viewership by attracting the top athletes in soccer. The UEFA Champions League has done that in spectacular fashion. Quite simply, you have some of the best athletes in any sport going head-to-head for very high stakes – including the defending finalists both on the ropes this week. What’s not to like, America?

Who knows, I may even learn a team song before it’s over…

— New Old Flame (Stan Johnston)

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