The Copa America is billed as the Western Hemisphere’s most prestigious soccer tournament, yet has never been held in the United States — let alone North America.
In fact, the only nations traditionally allowed to compete in this major international soccer tournament are those located in South America. The lack of this continent’s participation is expected to end, however, with the 2016 Copa America.
With the 2016 tournament, which will be held June 3-26, comes the event’s 100th birthday. To emphasize its centennial and the significance of such a distinguished tradition, it will be held in the U.S. and will feature a total of six North American teams to compete with the 10 South American automatic qualifiers.
“This will be the first time that CONMEBOL, the [football] confederation from South America, joins the [Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football],” says Diego Barassi, vice president of licensing and retail at WeMatch, a collaborative organization among Full Play, Torneos and Traffic Sports that was formed to develop and promote soccer worldwide. “In this tournament, you will have the 10 best nations from the South and six of the most important nations from the North invited to play.”
As of press time, 24 cities have submitted bids to become one of the eight to 13 host cities. The U.S. hasn’t hosted a major international competition since hitting the jackpot over an eight-year span with the FIFA World Cup in 1994, the Summer Olympics in 1996 and the Winter Olympics in 2002. The Copa America will end the 14-year draught, and will require monumental efforts in terms of organizing, planning, and licensing.
NUMBERS BUILDING BUZZ
Tasked with the licensing program for the event is One Entertainment, Los Angeles, a brand-extension agency that specializes in soccer licensing. Its portfolio of soccer rights includes clubs such as FC Barcelona, Manchester United and more. Appointed by WeMatch, which retains the commercial rights to the tournament, One Entertainment’s licensing program must be broad to ensure full-encompassing coverage of such a complex and multi-faceted event, but the company has examples to lay a foundation from.
“When we look at large, international sporting competitions, you’re looking at benchmarks,” says David Gebel, managing partner at One Entertainment. “We’re looking at [The] FIFA [World Cup], the [UEFA] Euro, the Olympics — all the big international competitions — and each one of those drives a lot of people into stadiums.. In the Copa America, 1.5 million people are expected to fill into the stadiums. So the licensing programs for these events are significant.”
And that’s just the amount of bodies expected to fill the seats. Millions more will watch their countries compete on television and purchase licensed goods that retailers will have to offer.
Licensors are predicting unprecedented fan and consumer participation for the Copa America Centennial, and soccer’s rapidly growing popularity domestically is expected to help the sport become a serious domestic moneymaker.
“You have the oldest soccer event in the world — the Copa America — and you have the best country in the Americas to host it,” Barassi says. “The importance and the infrastructure of this country will make the tournament three, five or even 10 times bigger than Chile 2015 or Argentina 2011. You have the best event, the oldest such event, in the best country in the region.
“I really believe that this is going to be the last knockout punch to show the Americans the importance of [soccer] in society,” he adds. “It is the most important sport in all the world. It will be the final proof to Americans that they need to invest in this sport, to grow this sport.”
According to WeMatch, there already are 90 million soccer fans nationwide, and it is the second-favorite sport among people ages 12-24, behind only professional football (National Football League). Those numbers, along with a reported 296 million viewers for the 2014 FIFA World Cup, suggest the 2016 Copa America is set to be the perfect storm for retailers, licensors and marketers around the country.
SOCCER GAINING GROUND
The main difference between the Copa America and similar events such as the Olympics is that they are one-and-done events, unlike recurring annual baseball, basketball and football seasons. Because of this, there is a small window to seize the potential licensing and retail opportunities for the tournament.
“A lot of the demand between retailers and consumers is going to happen very close to the event,” Gebel says. “That happens for the FIFA World Cup, the Euro, or an American-based event. It always happens kind of close to the action, so you need to build a program to react to [increased activity] and make the most of it.”
The U.S. never has traditionally been a big soccer-loving nation and — with the exception of the 1994 FIFA World Cup — hasn’t had any recent opportunities to host a large soccer tournament. Doing so with that World Cup, however, was considered a major success for a country where soccer isn’t seen as a primary sport. With more focus on soccer in recent years, the Copa America 2016 is expected to build on that momentum and draw even more interest from U.S. citizens and soccer supporters.
“[The 1994 World Cup] was [more than] 20 years ago at a time when the U.S. had 60 million less people [than it does now], and where the Hispanic population was half of what it is today,” Gebel says. “And the penetration of soccer was nowhere near what it is today.”
Tournaments such as the Copa America typically flourish in the host countries, and the timing could not be more ripe for the U.S. to host, as the relative success of the U.S. Men’s National Team in the knockout rounds of the 2010 and 2014 World Cups has bolstered what is turning into a promising soccer market.
“Another big thing is that the United States is the host country for the event,” Gebel says. “When you talk about big international sporting events, 80%-90% of sales in sports licensing take place in the host country. We are talking about something that’s going to be significantly different than the previous Copa America [in Argentina] or the FIFA World Cup that was in Brazil.”
ADVANTAGES FOR RETAILERS
Gebel warns that U.S. retailers previously have underestimated large soccer tournaments, and expressed his intention to avoid that problem in 2016.
“In terms of licensing, this is unique because it’s going to allow us to break a cycle that is centered in the U.S. around big soccer events like the World Cup,” Gebel says. “Every four years, this event is gaining more and more traction. However we always run into the same pattern, which is the buyers and the retailers tend to underestimate the event. Only after the event do they realize they were under stocked [with licensed products].”
Gebel says the timing of the Copa America 2016 favors retailers, as consumers still have the U.S. National Team’s relative success at the 2014 World Cup fresh in their minds. Also working in their favor is the sophistication of the U.S. infrastructure and its immense capacity for sports media output. Because of these factors, next year’s Copa America is expected to set a high-water mark for future similar tournaments.
And unlike the Olympics, which is centralized in one international city, the Copa America and similar tournaments can appeal to numerous, sizable cities and markets around the country.
“Our aim is to also reach the host cities and the tens of millions of people who will be living in those areas,” Gebel says. “It’s a pretty huge opportunity.”