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Copa America Off To Underwhelming Start, Bad For a U.S. World Cup Bid?

Copa America Centenario’s group stage is underway. An exciting test to a prestigious tournament? A true Western Hemisphere mid-cycle rival to the Euros? Thus far, it has felt more like a meatier Gold Cup. If this tournament is a dry run for a potential 2026 World Cup in the United States, it could be changing many peoples’ perceptions

Stadiums Have Been Empty

Attendance, being charitable, has been less than ideal. The listed figures have been poor. The listed figures, moreover, tend to be inflated. Their relationship to reality is often tangential at best.

USA vs. Colombia sold out, drawing more than 67,000 fans in Santa Clara. Mexico vs. Uruguay reached it (or came close) with 60,000 fans in Phoenix. Brazil vs. Ecuador drew 53,158 fans, albeit at the Rose Bowl with a 90,000-plus capacity. Beyond that, the picture was bleak.

Venezuela vs. Jamaica attracted a listed attendance of 25,560 to Soldier Field. The Chicago Tribune estimated that was two to three times the actual audience. Paraguay vs. Costa Rica drew only 14,344 at Camping World Stadium (the Citrus Bowl) in Orlando. Peru vs. Haiti attracted just 12,000 at CenturyLink Field in Seattle.

For context, Seattle and Orlando were the two best MLS attendance markets in 2015. Seattle attracted more than 44,000 fans per game. Orlando drew nearly 33,000.

We can’t vouch for the official and unofficial profit margins at this stage. But, at the very least, sub-15,000 crowds in large football stadiums don’t make for good optics.

Ticket prices are responsible for some of this. The absolute cheapest face value ticket for any match has been $50, which seems overpriced for lesser matches. Even Charlie Stillitano called out the tournament for gouging fans.

This is the Charlie Stillitano who wants to turn the UEFA Champions League into an invitation only money-making spectacle and lamented that clubs were constrained from doing more to help their sponsors.

TV Ratings Have Been…Okay

Interpreting the TV ratings depends on your frame of reference. Is this a major tournament? Or, is this a better version of the Gold Cup?

FOX announced USA vs. Colombia drew 1.536 million English language viewers on FS1. If you’re writing a press release, that’s 48 percent better than the average ratings for the 2015 Gold Cup group stage and 245 percent percent better than the average USMNT friendly on FS1.

Of course, that’s just 70 percent of the 2.2 million English language viewers that watched Real Madrid vs. Atletico Madrid in the Champions League Final. It’s about 36 percent of the average 4.2 million FOX audience for the USWNT’s World Cup group stage. Not an entirely fair comparison, but ESPN drew an average of 13.374 million viewers for U.S. group stage matches during the 2014 World Cup.

FOX has not yet released the full viewership numbers for the other matches. FOX showed Costa Rica and Paraguay (0.6/1) and Jamaica vs. Venezuela (0.7/2). FS1 showed Brazil vs. Ecuador and Mexico vs. Uruguay which earned “just under” 0.5/1 on FS1. The FOX network boost doubtless helped the former games.

ESPN averaged about 1.1 million viewers per match for Euro 2012, which did not have the USMNT and was not playing on American soil. Though, those advantages may not be as great as perceived.

UPDATE: Spanish language viewership has been far stronger. Univision is averaging 2.9 million viewers per match. Mexico vs. Uruguay outdrew the Stanley Cup Finals.

Copa America Centenario should do better than the Gold Cup. Though, that should have been the minimum expectation.

Extenuating Circumstances

Some factors are dragging on the tournament. Not all are the networks and organizer’s fault. Though some are.

Stars have been absent. Brazil pulled Neymar from Copa America to play in the Olympics in Rio (and sent a still really talented B team). Luis Suarez missed Uruguay’s first match and remains in doubt. Lionel Messi, while not ruled out, has yet to run full speed per reports. Argentina’s Sergio Aguero may be the one of our Top 10 soccer players who appears in this tournament. The lack of star power hurts.

The USMNT is curbing enthusiasm. The U.S. lost in the Gold Cup, lost the showdown with Mexico, and suffered a bad loss to Guatemala in qualifying. Fans weren’t “believing we will win” before the tournament. The last four friendlies on home soil in the buildup attracted fewer than 10,000 fans. The Americans then killed much of the latent enthusiasm with a 2-0 defeat to Colombia in the opener.

Matches have been brutal. Saturday was apocalyptic. Three matches that day produced one combined goal. That goal was buried in Peru vs. Haiti on FS2. When Mexico and Uruguay came to the rescue with goals, red cards, and fireworks (on and off the pitch), much of the potential audience was watching the NBA Finals.

Matches have been late. USA vs. Colombia kicked off at 9:30pm ET on Friday. Brazil vs. Ecuador began at 10pm ET on Saturday. Argentina vs. Chile, perhaps the best match of the first round of games, kicks off at 10:00pm ET tonight. Admittedly, we’re getting old. But, that seems a bit late for matches being held in the United States.

It’s a Brave New World. FOX outbid ESPN for the World Cup rights for 2018 and 2022, and received the 2026 rights from FIFA without a bidding process. ESPN can set the tone for the mainstream sports audience. World Cups in 2010 and 2014 had a tremendous ESPN promotion effort behind them. This is the first *major* international tournament in the modern soccer era without that. Would the tournament have done better on ESPN? We’ll see how it compares to Euro 2016, happening concurrently.

It’s Not Over Yet

It’s early. The U.S. can get back into the tournament. The Costa Rica vs. Paraguay result sets up well for the Americans. If they can earn four points from the final two matches (on home soil for whatever that is worth), they should be in good position to advance to the knockout rounds. That run may be imperative to bring in a casual English language audience.

Of course, the USMNT can also eliminate themselves with a loss tomorrow, which could be a disaster.

Stars could align and make an impact. Luis Suarez tends to be a fast healer. Messi may make an appearance. Sergio Aguero and Alexis Sanchez, freshly shorn, will be taking the pitch tonight.

Still, this feels far more like the contrived, cash-producing exhibition than a rousing mid-cycle precursor for the World Cup. Barring a fairy tale U.S. run to the final, it’s hard to picture what would change that.