Soccerex USA 2018: Highlights from day one

Soccerex USA 2018: Highlights from day one
A recap of the biggest stories to emerge from day one of Soccerex, which began on Thursday 15 November at Marlins Park in Miami.

In the year that the United bid was awarded the 2026 Fifa World Cup, it was perhaps fitting that some of the opening words of Soccerex USA in Miami went to Carlos Cordeiro, the president of US Soccer, and one of the key figures behind the push to bring the sport’s flagship international tournament back to North America.

It was a little under five months ago that Cordeiro stood triumphant alongside the leaders of the Canadian and Mexican soccer associations at the Expocentre in Moscow having fended off a rival bid from Morocco by 134 votes to 65. Now, speaking on stage at Marlins Park in South Florida, the 62-year-old was in the mood to highlight the opportunities that hosting the World Cup will provide for soccer in the region.   

“For us in the US we’re still building our football culture,” said Cordeiro, speaking alongside City of Miami Mayor Francis Suarez and Soccerex chairman Joe DaGrosa at the opening address. “We see the US hosting as a once in a generation opportunity to grow the game together. The excitement will inspire a new generation, making soccer the preeminent sport in the US.”

It was, then, also appropriate that the second Duncan Revie Award to be handed out since the Soccerex founder’s sad passing last year went to Alan Rothenberg, one of Cordeiro’s predecessors at US Soccer who was instrumental in bringing the World Cup to the country for the first time in 1994. Rothenberg, who served as president of US Soccer from 1990 until 1998, also overseeing the establishment of Major League Soccer (MLS) in 1996, described the previous World Cup in the US as “the spark that lit the flame for the growth of the sport”, adding that “what’s happened since is nothing short of miraculous.”

Growing the game together

“We are now a powerful commercial market that the rest of the world is looking to take advantage of,” asserted MLS commissioner Don Garber, when asked how far soccer has come in North America.

Much of that development has been driven by a long-running strategic partnership between MLS and Liga MX, the top-tier of soccer in Mexico. That relationship was taken a step further this year when Tigres defeated Toronto FC in the first ever edition of the Campeones Cup, a new annual fixture that pits the previous season’s domestic champions from the US and Canada against their counterparts from Mexico.

With a co-hosted World Cup now on the horizon, opportunities to collaborate will only continue to crop up. Liga MX president Enrique Bonilla has already floated the idea of a combined North American league between the US, Canada and Mexico arising from the 2026 tournament and – sharing the stage with Garber - Mexican Football Federation (FMF) president Yon de Luisa said the competition “will change the way we share knowledge with Canada and the US.”

Garber was keen to remind the audience that while MLS is the fastest growing soccer league in the US and Canada, it still isn’t taken quite as seriously by onlookers across Europe and even South America. The hope now is that the 2026 World Cup will shine a light on the growing popularity of the sport in North America, providing a catalyst for Concacaf to be considered in the same bracket as the traditionally more dominant confederations.

“Think about where our region was a couple of years ago and where it is now,” begun Garber. “I’ve always thought that we were always subject to being outside of having the influence of the rest of the world – people don’t really understand the value of the rising tide of what’s happening here in the Concacaf region.

“We ought to be able to stand toe-to-toe with Conmebol and with Uefa and with the rest of the world, and the 2026 World Cup will be the moment to pull us there. It’s not just for MLS or for US soccer; it’s for the sport throughout these three countries.”

Turning it around

While the US, Mexico and Canada will be tasked with hosting World Cup games when 2026 rolls around, much of the responsibility for the organisation of the tournament will fall on Concacaf, the continental confederation for soccer in North America, Central America and the Caribbean.

The organisation was perhaps hit hardest by the Fifa scandal of 2015, when three former presidents - Jack Warner, Alfredo Hawit and Jeffrey Webb – were named as co-conspirators in the US Department of Justice corruption case which saw powerful figures across the global game ousted from their positions.

Since then, however, Victor Montagliani – the Canadian installed as president of Concacaf in 2016 – has been going about restoring both public and commercial faith in the governing body.

 “In 28 months it’s totally turned around in terms of transparency, in terms of how we present ourselves,” said Montagliani. “You have to regain the trust of these institutions so that you can continue doing business with them – and we’ve done that.”

Montagliani was quick to point to the significant strides being made on the pitch, too. Qualifying for the inaugural Concacaf Nations League got underway in September, and the competition – which mimics the competitive format recently introduced by Uefa to replace half-hearted friendlies – is aiming to give the region’s smaller nations an opportunity to play a minimum of 24 games over a four-year period.

For Montagliani, the new tournament won’t only ramp up fan interest in international soccer, but will be essential for the sport's development in Concacaf countries as well.

“What had happened in Concacaf was too much of a vicious cycle – it was too difficult for some of our smaller nations to even get friendlies,” said Montagliani. “The Nations League is also creative enough so that some of our bigger nations will still get the opportunity to play bigger games because of the way we schedule the groups together.

“Given time you’re going to see a lot of countries – including our bigger ones – improve. You see the sterility of some games [at the moment] and the reality is that some of the romanticism needs to come back into football. Decisions have to be made not just based on economics, but based on football, and that’s what our Nations League does.”

A slam dunk deal

There have been no shortage of major European soccer clubs making their mark on North America in recent years, and three of them – Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain and Barcelona – were first to take the stage after lunch.

It didn’t take long for one of the more eye-catching deals of the past few months to become the topic of discussion, as Jerome De Chaunac, PSG’s managing director for the Americas, fronted up to questions over the club’s tie-up with Jordan Brand for the Uefa Champions League. At the time, Michael Jordan described the collaboration - which is an expansion of PSG’s partnership with Nike – as “a natural fit”, and De Chaunac wasted no time in echoing the sentiments of the National Basketball Association (NBA) icon.

“Jordan brand and PSG share the same values,” he said. “On one side it’s very much about performance, but the PSG and Jordan brands are very much about style and lifestyle. It’s an incredible opportunity because the Jordan brand is global, and we are in the process of taking our brand more global.”

At a time when clubs continue to look for new ways to be innovative with their commercial deals as a means to attract new fans, De Chaunac emphasised that the partnership with Jordan Brand was emblematic of the way that the club is attempting to tap into Paris’ reputation as a cultural hub to even reach those who don't have an avid interest in soccer.

“They may not necessarily be soccer fans,” he begun, “but they’ll come to the brand because they like it, they like the fashion, and they can see that we’re part of pop culture.”

LaLiga in the US: Friend or foe?

The always-entertaining LaLiga president Javier Tebas rounded off day one with a typically energetic presentation during which he touched on topics ranging from the Spanish league’s media rights to plans to stage annual fixtures in the US.

The 56-year-old, who last year made headlines at the Soccerex Global Convention in Manchester for calling out PSG’s “financial doping”, highlighted that the organising body for Spanish soccer’s top two tiers has added nearly 500 employees since the 2013/14 season, with the majority joining in the audiovisual and digital strategy departments.

The reason for that shift, he said, is because LaLiga now considers the likes of Netflix and HBO alongside rival soccer leagues and other sports as its main competitors for eyeballs.

“We are all in the entertainment business,” Tebas said. “Every time that we talk about fans we talk about the ones that go to the stadium, but now it is the one who pays for watching soccer at home. These are all fans and we have to work for all of them – we have to find a balance between those who go to the stadium and those who are paying at home.”

Arguably saving the best until last, Tebas couldn’t resist a subtle dig at those who have publicly questioned LaLiga’s controversial plans – which are part of a 15-year deal with Relevent Sports - to bring regular season games to the US.

“We have everyone opining on a La Liga match here in Miami,” he said. “I’m just waiting for the UN to give their thoughts.”

The well-documented proposal hasn’t been met with universal enthusiasm in Spain, where the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) is thought to be opposed to the idea and some players are reportedly not keen on the plans. Further afield, Fifa president Gianni Infantino has said that world soccer’s governing body is strongly opposed to La Liga games being played outside of Spain, while there is also a fear that it could be viewed as an attempt to tread on the toes of MLS.

Tebas, however, was adamant that the games will be mutually beneficial for La Liga and the development of US soccer, before calling on the key decision-makers to rally behind the idea. 

“It’s not going to be just a game – we’re talking about going into schools, seminars, and other events,” Tebas said. “If MLS asked me if they could play in Spain I would say “yes”, and if the Premier League asked me to play in Spain I would say “yes”, and I would help them organise it."

He continued: “We still have 379 games that will be played in Spain. We can only have one - at the most two games [in the US]. We cannot have any more than that because it will ruin our industry and there is a very important national component to consider.

“I know most [La Liga] players want to come to play in the US; it will not be a problem for players at all. The discussion in Spain is like comparing it to black and white TV – arguments that you cannot play a match abroad. They are making up these regulations as they go along. They know that they cannot ban these things because they are the future."

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