- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 29, 2003

The perception that fans in the United States don’t attend soccer games is being blown away by the ChampionsWorld tour.

American soccer fans have come out in full force the past two weeks to watch the exhibition games between several European powerhouses — including global giant Manchester United — and teams from Mexico and Argentina.

The tour has played four games in four cities — Seattle, Cleveland, Boston and Los Angeles — and has drawn 175,891 fans, an average of 43,972. By comparison, 8-year-old Major League Soccer is averaging 14,528 for its games this season.

Tonight, RFK Stadium plays host to the fifth leg of the seven-city tour when Spanish soccer power Barcelona plays Italian club and current Champions League title holder AC Milan.

A crowd of more than 30,000 is expected for the match, including a sizeable walkup gate. If tonight’s projected attendance holds up, it will be the biggest soccer crowd at RFK this season, eclipsing all three doubleheaders — two with D.C. United and the Washington Freedom and one with the Freedom and women’s U.S. national team — played at the stadium in 2003.

“What this does show is the support in the D.C. area and around the country,” said Bobby Goldwater, the president of the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission. “This is a unique situation and gives fans a unique opportunity to see two of the best teams in the world. It speaks well of this market.”

It also may show American soccer fans want to see the game played at a higher level than MLS.

The ChampionsWorld tour is the brainchild of Charlie Stillitano, the ex-general manager of MLS’ MetroStars, and his vision was to take advantage of an untapped soccer market in the United States.

Fox Sports World is televising the tour in the United States and more than 130 countries worldwide. MasterCard and Budweiser are major sponsors.

Within an hour of when tickets were released to the general public, Manchester United’s games in Seattle and Philadelphia sold out. Manchester United’s game against Italian heavyweight Juventus tomorrow night at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., is also sold out. The Italian Super Cup between AC Milan and Juventus scheduled for Sunday at Giants Stadium is nearing a sellout.

Last Tuesday in Seattle, 66,772 set a Seahawks Stadium attendance record for the Manchester United game against Scottish club Celtic. On Sunday, 57,365 attended Manchester United’s match against Mexican team Club America at the Los Angeles Coliseum.

“There is the perception that ChampionsWorld invented the international game business,” MLS commissioner Don Garber told the Sports Business Journal. “ChampionsWorld had been successful with a handful of big clubs and that has created the perception that MLS has been left behind.”

Last year, MLS sued Giants Stadium as ChampionsWorld was preparing to stage the Real Madrid/AS Roma match. The league contended the stadium did not have the right, under the MetroStars lease, to play host to other soccer games. The match drew 70,635 and the sides settled the lawsuit.

“We had a lot of meetings with [MLS] to be a part of this,” said former Italian soccer legend Giorgio Chinaglia, who is now ChampionsWorld senior vice president of business development. “I don’t think they believed in the project or the company.”

In fairness to MLS, two of the league’s 10 teams — Dallas and Chicago — play in small football stadiums that hold less than 15,000 while permanent homes are either being constructed or renovated.

However, those temporary facilities can’t explain why MLS has just four teams — the MetroStars, Chicago, San Jose and Kansas City — with .500 records or better heading into this week’s All-Star break. The league’s stringent $1.7million salary cap and limit of three international players seems to have watered down MLS’ player quality.

“These are the superstars of world football and our league isn’t there yet,” said D.C. United coach Ray Hudson of the ChampionsWorld tour. “These are the royalty of soccer so it’s natural that they attract massive crowds. … I honestly believe MLS has got to start attracting these sorts of quality players. Those early marquee players [Marco Etcheverry and Carlos Valderrama] are slipping away now. We need to bring those world-class quality players back into this league.”

The ChampionsWorld tour is putting up $15million to cover costs for the eight games and expects to make a $3million profit. Appearance fees due each club gobble up a good chunk of the operating cost — Manchester United was guaranteed $2million. Another expense is the $2.5million payment to the U.S. Soccer Federation in order to sanction the games.

“It’s highway robbery, they [U.S. Soccer] don’t do anything,” Chinaglia said. “They should be happy with the money we are paying them. It’s totally wrong, but it’s always the product, people go out to see the best.”

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