There is talk that Manchester United, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur could be playing friendlies in the United States this summer. It’s music to my ears and I’m sure many other soccer fans in America. But while teams in the past such as Chelsea, Everton and others have tried to conquer the States, they all have come up short so far and haven’t maximized the level of success that’s possible.
When you think about it, which Premier League club is America’s team? There are large numbers of Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal fans. And definitely sizable numbers of Tottenham, Chelsea and Leeds United supporters. But no one team has blown the roof off America. All of the above teams have medium to high levels of support, but none of them can claim to be “America’s team.”
The closest you’ll find to “America’s team,” not in the number of supporters but in how loyal their fans are despite being smaller clubs, are Fulham and Everton. But even they haven’t been able to figure out the secret to success in breaking wide open in America.
So, here’s my blueprint for Premier League teams if they want to conquer America:
- Sign top American talent. There are large numbers of soccer fans in the United States who haven’t picked a Premier League team to follow yet. Or, if they have, their loyalty to that team can easily change if another team became more attractive for particular reasons. For Premier League clubs trying to break through in America, it’s imperative that these clubs have one or more Americans on their team.While Chelsea has had massive crowds come out to their games in the States, they would have been more popular if they had an American in their squad. As an example, remember how much Oguchi Onyewu was cheered when he was substituted on for AC Milan last summer and how loud the crowd was whenever he touched the ball. Also take note of the attention that Everton has achieved because of Landon Donovan’s loan deal at the club. Last but not least, consider how much impact an American has when he achieves something wonderful in England. While not everyone is a Fulham supporter, you only had to browse the message forums and blogs to see what impact Clint Dempsey’s wondergoal against Juventus had on soccer fans in the U.S.A. last week.
- Play top American talent. It’s one thing to sign American players, but it’s another thing to play them quite often. This definitely is dependent on the American player — to make sure that he deserves to be playing when he’s on form — but it’s also very dependent on a manager who is open to American players. For example, former Fulham manager Lawrie Sanchez seemed reluctant to play Americans who were at Craven Cottage during his short stay there.
- Play attractive free-flowing soccer. When Wigan Athletic played their first season in the Premier League during 2005-06, they won over large amounts of American fans because of their attacking style of football that continually put opponents on the back foot. The underdog angle was also a big reason why Wigan won over a lot of American fans that season. For the most part, Americans want to see entertaining soccer and lots of goals. Catenaccio is not something most Americans enjoy.
- Tour the North American cities that will make a difference. Too often in the past, Premier League clubs have toured America but played in the wrong cities. When a club has an opportunity to play 3-4 games, it needs to make sure that it maximizes the impact of playing in those cities. Take Everton, for example. In recent years, they’ve played in North American cities including Salt Lake City (in the horrid Rice-Eccles Stadium), Edmonton and at the Home Depot Center for a low-key friendly in front of 100 spectators. To me, those opportunities were wasted. Although, to be fair, the club is not as big as it is now that Donovan played for them. But whether it’s Everton or any other Premier League club, the cities the club plays in is vital. New York, Los Angeles and Seattle are now must-visits. Chicago and Toronto are included in the next wave.
- Don’t expect overnight success. Too many Premier League clubs expect overnight success in the United States. It takes hard work and persistence as well as tours over a few summers before a team can unlock the success in this country. Chelsea is going about it the right way by playing in the States every couple of seasons. Manchester United and Liverpool haven’t played here in years but may expect overnight success when it isn’t possible.
- Hire a US media specialist. Unless you’re Garry Cook and you know how different the US media is, it’s vital that Premier League clubs hire expert PR specialists to make sure the media experience in the States is different than the UK. The US media expects to get more access to players than the UK media. Interviews are crucial and it’s vital that clubs make players available to the media such as radio, local television and the press so they can help sell the game to the general public. If Premier League clubs act like they do in the UK, they’ll have a tough time winning over the media.
- Keep the United States in your plans all year long. When a tour of the United States is over, Premier League clubs return to England and focus on their season but they often don’t think about the States anymore until the following summer. But for soccer fans in the States, they eat, live and breathe soccer 365 days a year. Even during the season, Premier League clubs need to do a better job at marketing themselves and communicating with their soccer audience in the States (and other countries) by conducting interviews with key media outlets rather than completely ignoring them.
If Premier League clubs are truly committed to becoming popular in the United States, they need to focus on these seven easy steps and I’m confident it will happen. The struggle thus far has been that teams have only done some but not all of the steps.
Manchester City has taken it one step further by having talks with MLS commissioner Don Garber regarding starting its own MLS franchise in America. I honestly don’t think that’s the solution to being successful in the States since EPL clubs are on television more often than MLS ones are. But if you have a ton of money to spend, it can’t do any harm.