Nearly 850,000 fans attended friendlies in North America this summer. Eight of them drew more than 50,000 fans, five of which featured an MLS team. Clearly, there is an appetite for these exhibitions, even if some among us would rather our teams focus on winning trophies.
When teams like Manchester United, Real Madrid or FC Barcelona come to town, they are practically guaranteed to fill whatever stadium they are playing in. Those teams played nine matches -- most of them as part of the World Football Challenge -- in front of average crowds of more than 57,000 with 81,802 showing up to see Manchester United take on Barcelona in Dallas.
From a business perspective, it's a pretty clear win-win. The visiting teams are able to spend a chunk of their offseason in top-notch facilities while banking away a few million in guarantees. MLS teams get the benefit of selling some extra tickets, as well as potentially exposing new fans to their product. At the end of the day, there's little to suggest that there's any measurable backlash against MLS if their teams are getting thrashed.
For any MLS team that has an opportunity to host one of these huge teams -- and you can probably throw a handful of other Europeans sides on that list as well -- it's pretty much a no-brainer. No matter how well MLS teams are drawing, it's almost impossible to turn down the chance to sell 30,000 extra tickets.
The issue of playing friendlies midseason is more convoluted, though, when you look beyond the games including these mega-teams. In the 16 friendlies that did not include Barcelona, Manchester United or Real Madrid, the crowds averaged just 16,220 or about 1,100 less than an average MLS game. Five of the nine friendlies that involved the smaller international teams playing against MLS opponents failed to outdraw an average game in those MLS markets and none of those games represented a season-high in attendance for the MLS team.
Realities like this, as well as the desire to have their team focus on meaningful tournaments such as the U.S. Open Cup and CONCACAF Champions League have prompted Real Salt Lake to become the standard bearer for the "Trophies, Not Friendlies" movement. RSL last played a midseason friendly in 2008.
"The team got better and we started having some success," RSL General Manager Garth Lagerwey said. "Our fans came to us and told us they wanted CONCACAF instead of friendlies."
As part of that, RSL promoted this year's U.S. Open Cup competition as more of a CCL qualifier. Lagerwey credits that mentality with drawing 7,620 fans to Rio Tinto for a third round game against the USL-Pro's Wilmington Hammerheads.
"It’s exciting and i think it’s more authentic when your playing for trophies," Lagerwey said. "There is a business purpose to playing friendlies and it is legitimate. Especially with new teams in new markets or teams that are opening stadiums."
Those descriptions fit the Portland Timbers almost perfectly. They played a league-leading four friendlies this year, and brought in a little something for everyone. First it was Dutch giant Ajax. Then came Mexican giant Club America, which was followed by England's West Bromwich Albion and finally Argentina's Independiente. Every game was considered a sellout and the match against Club America wasn't even included in the season-ticket package.
Like Lagerwey, Timbers GM Gavin Wilkinson would prefer to be playing in real competitions. But after the Timbers failed to make the main draw of the U.S. Open Cup, there were a lot of open dates facing his team.
"The rationale was that it was a window of opportunity in trying to create a brand and fulfill season-ticket obligations," said Wilkinson in explaining the number of friendlies. "The first year was about filling a quota and giving value to season-ticket holders."
Wilkinson also pointed out that with the Timbers playing in a relatively small stadium and selling out every MLS game, the opportunity to get new fans in is limited. The friendlies provided that chance. The games also provided an opportunity to reach out to demographics that otherwise might overlook the domestic league.
"The Club America game is great example of that," Wilkinson said. "That was a great advertisment for the Timbers and MLS."
As far as MLS has come in 16 years, it's clear -- especially in some markets -- that there's still a long way to go before opinion makers can't help but pay attention. For every Seattle, where games are broadcast on network television and the TV news comes out to practice nearly every week, there are plenty of other markets like San Jose where the local paper doesn't even staff many of the road games.
Even though less than 7,000 people showed up for the San Jose Earthquakes' match against West Brom, team president Dave Kaval says the fact that an EPL team was playing got the attention of media who often are happy to ignore the team.
"It’s important for elevating soccer in the media," Kaval said. "That’s a major motivator for us. (West Brom) do have a large following. We’ve found that some of the thought leaders at the (San Francisco) Chronicle follow the Premiership and whether it’s Tottenham or the Baggies, they’ll come to the game because they want to see it."
Making that even more important is the fact that the Earthquakes are currently in the midst of trying to get a new soccer specific stadium built. Although that stadium will fit less than 17,000 fans (the exact number is still in flux), it would represent a more than 50 percent increase over their current facility. That's obviously going to require the conversion of new fans.
As the Earthquakes discovered this year when they hosted the New York Red Bulls at Stanford Stadium for a Fourth of July game that drew more than 40,000, friendlies aren't the only way to "move the needle." North American soccer fans might not be flocking the MLS games quite as quickly as some would like, but they are maturing.
Fans did not flock to games between teams like Italy's Juventus and Portugal's Sporting CP (10,028) or Club America-Manchester City (11,250). When faced with the chance to see foreign teams lacking big-name attractions, more and more fans are choosing to save their money. The big-name friendly may be here to stay, but teams seem to be gravitating toward the idea that winning meaningful games is a perfectly viable way to get people into the park.
"We’re about winning hardware," said Sporting Kansas City COO Greg Cotton when explaining how his team prioritized friendlies against competitions. "We're not quite there yet, but every time we enter a competition, we’re in it to win it."