“It’s possible. We started to discuss about that, but then one year it was the World Cup, 24 is Euro, this year [the final] is [in] Istanbul, ’24 is London, and ’25 is Munich, and after that, let’s see.
“Football is extremely popular in [the] United States these days. Americans are willing to pay for the best and nothing for the less. So, they will follow European football as basketball lovers in Europe follow NBA.
“It’s a very important promising market for the future. The thing is that we are selling rights very well. Sponsorship is so-so for now from the US, but here [in the US] commercialization is completely different than in Europe. They [Americans] are much more talented for that than us [Europeans].”
These words from UEFA president Aleksander Čeferin got a very mixed reaction from European soccer fans following an interview in the US, especially given his blanket denial of reports last September that talks had taken place about hosting the blue-chip event outside of Europe for the first time. While the popularity of the UEFA Champions League is certainly growing, aided in part by a strong social media presence and the coverage provided in the US by CBS/Paramount+, the Champions League Final being played on a different continent seems to be focused on the commercial possibilities rather the interests of fans. You can only imagine the reaction if the NFL were to take its showpiece Super Bowl and host it in Europe, or the NBA to take the NBA Finals ‘on the road’ as opposed to games being played in the cities of the two teams contesting the event.
Even an organization like WWE, which frequently puts on pay-per-view events in places like London and Saudi Arabia, has yet to host its showpiece event, Wrestlemania, outside of North America. While the NBA, NFL, and WWE have all hosted significant games and events outside of the US, with ‘London games’ now a staple of the NFL season, outside of friendlies no competitive game from a European league has been played on foreign soil. So, what is motivating Čeferin, a man who was elected on a manifesto of good governance reforms and improving competitive balance in European football, to take his showpiece event to the other side of the world?
The answer, it seems, is money. In the interview Čeferin alludes to the commercial sophistication of the sponsorship market in the US, suggesting that sponsorship sales in the region for UEFA are ‘so-so’ and suggesting that there is significant scope for growth. While Čeferin makes some questionable claims about audience figures when comparing to events like the Super Bowl and the NBA Finals, the fact that Europe’s showpiece event kicks off at midday on the West Coast will undoubtedly present commercial challenges for European soccer’s governing body.
The past few years have seen UEFA try to better understand the US market, appointing Relevant Sports as their US agency of choice to sell both media and sponsorship rights across North America. A more unique approach to social media for Champions League coverage on Paramount, fronted by Kate Abdo with a supporting cast of Thierry Henry, Jamie Carragher, and Micah Richards, provides meme-worthy content that is picked up on both sides of the Atlantic.
Much like F1, which has grown significantly in terms of popularity and audience in the US since the takeover by Liberty Media, UEFA has seized the potential of social media to reach an entirely new audience, and with the popularity of soccer growing in the US, with the MLS and NWSL leagues growing in terms of audience and revenue, UEFA is wanting to capitalize.
The next World Cup will also present UEFA with a massive opportunity, with the US, Canada, and Mexico hosting the showpiece soccer event in 2026. Čeferin’s ‘let’s see’ comment in his interview may not be as flippant as it sounds. With Munich hosting the Champions League Final in 2025, 2026’s version is still yet to be awarded, is there a world in which FIFA and UEFA enter a pact for mutual benefit – the Champions League Final taking place on one coast while the World Cup Final could take place on the other?
Čeferin is not naive and will know the strength of feeling that a suggestion of playing the Champions League Final in the US would generate, especially among fans. Much like the European Super League, the backlash across social media was predictably negative, with fans suggesting their fandom was being exploited for commercial benefit. While the theory of playing the game in the US is sound, logistically, taking one of Europe’s showpiece events to be settled on another continent simply is impractical. Would fans of the finalists travel to Dallas or New York to watch the game? Some undoubtedly would, but UEFA and Čeferin specifically would no longer be able to claim that they were a fan-focused organization. Maybe sports fans should merely accept this direction of travel, that they are merely consumers and therefore sources of revenue. In practical terms, most tickets for Champions League finals are made available to corporate partners and UEFA delegates so are the fans even a consideration for the governing body when it comes to this sort of decision-making?
UEFA’s recent track record when it comes to fan concerns, including the attempt to blame Liverpool fans for the complete mismanagement of the 2022 Champions League Final in Paris, shows an organization that is focused on the commercial bottom line. Revenue from corporate partnerships dwarfs the revenue made from ticket sales, and, given, the marketing strength and power of US brands along with the kind of sponsorship revenues the likes of the NFL and the NBA are able to generate, Čeferin is perhaps right in attempting to lead UEFA and the member nations and clubs towards this utopia.
One of the reasons that UEFA has restructured the Champions League group stage to a ‘Swiss Format’ league is in order generate additional revenue, an attempt to head off the attempts of clubs like Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Juventus to break away and form the European Super League. Ultimately, the driver behind that move was financial, with all three clubs under constant financial pressure from the Premier League and its member clubs and their staggering commercial revenues. The potential additional revenue stream from a US leg of the Champions League could make for a persuasive argument against such a breakaway.
Whatever Čeferin’s motivation in making the comments truly was, it does make the possibility of a game or two from the Champions League being played in the US a real possibility. While the final itself may not be feasible, could the prospect of playing in front of a US audience and developing a fanbase in the US be enough to lure some teams over to play a game in the group stage in a US city? For example, could Celtic be adopted by the Irish population in Boston? Or could the City Football Group realize its vision and take Manchester City to play a Champions League match in NYC FC’s stadium – to be completed in 2027 – in Willets Point?
While the 1994 World Cup reintroduced soccer to the US, Čeferin knows the next World Cup will present a tangible opportunity for soccer to colonize the US and it seems he is determined to take the opportunity.
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