U.S. attendance dwindling at International Champions Cup, and here's why

On July 31, 2013, the International Champions Cup played its first match on United States soil. The tournament, which replaced the World Football Challenge of the previous four summers, was a planetary knockout extravaganza, featuring the likes of Real Madrid, Chelsea, Milan and Juventus.

The American leg of the action began at then-Pac Bell Park in San Francisco, where a little over 22,000 fans saw Everton beat Juventus by virtue of a shootout. That crowd was around half the capacity crowd for a Giants game, but attendances would grow as the ICC gained stature.

The following summer, 109,318 fans packed the University of Michigan’s Big House to see Manchester United play Real Madrid. Despite the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo and new signing James Rodriguez — and the dour nature of Louis van Gaal’s United — the attendance remains a record soccer audience in the USA. Two further games at the Big House both drew over 100,000 fans each.

Michigan notwithstanding, however, ICC crowds have started to show signs of regression. In 2018, as many top players skipped the tournament due to their involvement in the World Cup, average attendances went down 18.6 percent year-on-year (as per The Guardian).

The crowd sizes also appear to be dwindling in the current iteration of the tournament. At Benfica’s match with Chivas Guadalajara, just 15,724 fans were present at Levi’s Stadium. That’s not even a quarter capacity.

Charlotte was chosen as the destination for the ICC’s “House of Soccer” festival, where World Cup hero Megan Rapinoe was among the guests. However, the announced attendance for Arsenal’s clash with Fiorentina was only 34,902. So, less than half the seats were filled at Bank of America Stadium.

Even a heavyweight encounter between Real Madrid and Bayern Munich had over 10,000 unsold seats at Houston’s NRG Stadium, with large swathes of the upper tiers left unattended.

CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA - JULY 20: A general view of the field during the Fiorentina versus Arsenal match at the 2019 International Champions Cup at Bank of America Stadium on July 20, 2019 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/International Champions Cup/Getty Images)
There were tons of empty seats for Arsenal vs. Fiorentina in Charlotte, which is becoming a familiar sight at various International Champions Cup matches. (Getty)

The phenomenon has not been limited to the ICC, either. When reigning Champions League winner Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund met Saturday in the first soccer game ever at hallowed Notre Dame Stadium, 40,361 fans were announced, or barely half capacity.

Why is interest in U.S. summer friendlies slowing down? It’s certainly not because of a lack of interest in the beautiful game. NBC Sports reported another increase in season-long viewership of the Premier League in 2018-19, while MLS’ continued year-on-year cumulative attendance increase show there is no diminishing thirst for live soccer.

Perhaps the reason is more to do with the nature of the tournament itself.

For starters, it no longer has the feel of a competitive tournament. In the season when Manchester United broke attendance record at the Big House, van Gaal complained about the amount of travel involved in the preseason U.S. tour. The following season, the knockout tournament structure was removed, so that all clubs would know exactly when and where they would be playing before they set foot on American soil.

Although there is a points table for the tournament, which technically determines a winner (Tottenham finished first last year), the lack of a final takes away the facade of competitiveness. The International Champions Cup is no longer a “cup.” It is a collection of loosely related friendlies.

As soccer fans in the U.S. become increasingly wise to the nuances of the European giants, they may realize that these preseason games are used as test runs for new tactics, or players who may disappear from sight when the domestic seasons begin.

There may also be an element of fatigue. When the ICC first started, the premise of watching the titans of Europe clash in the flesh was novel; seven years later, it may have lost its sheen.

And perhaps it is guilty of over-expansion, introducing match-ups that may not put butts on seats. Serie A’s Fiorentina, who replaced Roma at the eleventh hour, may not have the draw in the Carolinas to help fill an NFL stadium. (Local fans may have been deterred by the scheduling: a 6 p.m. ET kick-off in the blazing Charlotte sun and humidity, in a stadium that offers zero shade, may not have been the best way to entice supporters.)

The biggest contributing factor to the perceived decline, however, is quite possibly the price of tickets.

It is, and always has been, incredibly expensive to attend an ICC game.

HOUSTON, TEXAS - JULY 20: A general view prior to the International Champions Cup match between Bayern Muenchen and Real Madrid in the 2019 International Champions Cup at NRG Stadium on July 20, 2019 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Bongarts/Getty Images)
Even a clash between European powers Real Madrid and and Bayern Munich didn't entice a huge crowd in Houston. (Getty)

Case in point: official tickets for the Madrid derby at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey range from $73.30 to an eye-opening $791, plus fees. The cheapest ticket to see Bayern Munich play Milan in Kansas City — a game that appears to have plenty of original tickets available — is $52 plus fees. And the best seats in the house for Real Madrid’s meeting with Arsenal at FedEx Field in suburban Washington, D.C. will set you back $750 plus fees. The cheapest standard ticket is $85.

To put these prices in perspective, the average Premier League ticket cost £31 ($38) last season and away tickets have been capped at £26 ($32) since 2016-17.

There were angry protests in 2015 when Bayern Munich fans had to pay £64 ($78) for their Champions League clash at Arsenal. That exorbitant price is at the lower end of the ICC scale.

When fans are paying considerably more for uncompetitive summer matches than elite European fixtures in their native setting, it is easy to see why there may be some reticence in the U.S. market.

High prices are common in U.S. sports — and the USMNT also has major issues with over-priced tickets — but it seems that fans may be voting with their wallets in the case of pre-season tours.

It is perfectly possible that the ICC organizers are happy with attendance levels, and the revenue they are bringing in for the 2018 edition. They may be putting enough butts on seats to make the tournament a going concern for another decade. But if they wish to see packed stadiums for the 2020 edition, a lower price for entry would go a very long way to achieving that goal.

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