Does Copa America Centenario Set the Stage for Future Tournaments?
The tournament went well, but will there be another? And does that success put the U.S. an edge in the chase to host another World Cup?
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
"From any point of view," CONMEBOL president Alejandro Dominguez told reporters at a press conference in Manhattan on Friday, "[Copa America Centenario] has been a success."
It's something like Dominguez's job to say this, but the tournament really did go well. Messi played. Both Mexico and the United States made it to the knockout rounds, keeping local interest high. The final between the two best teams had a healthy mix of controversy and drama and also more Messi. If Messi does indeed carry through on his threat to retire from international soccer, Copa America Centenario, and specifically the swamplands of New Jersey, will forever be known as his final, failed attempt at international success.
From a business perspective, TV ratings were solid across the board. The Copa group stages outperformed the 2014 World Cup group stages on Univision (Spanish language networks generally carry the lion's share of soccer viewership in the United States). Corporate ad sponsorships sold out, and taught us David Beckham didn't learn a lick of Spanish during his four years in Madrid. Despite high ticket prices, the tournament averaged more than 46,000 fans per match, far surpassing US Soccer president Sunil Gulati's stated goal of 30,000. "These are World Cup numbers," Gulati said on Friday, "for an event organized in seven months."
In that one statement, Gulati inadvertently spoke to both sides of Copa Centenario. First, about those "seven months." Copa America Centenario was officially announced by CONCACAF and CONMEBOL, the North and South American soccer confederations, on May 1, 2014, more than two years before kickoff. That qualifies as plenty of time to organize an international tournament that doesn't involve any construction.
But if you want to find the original press release for that announcement, you'll have to use an internet archiving tool. CONCACAF's website deleted it because the only people quoted in it are currently under federal indictment. Both federations' presidents, Jeffrey Webb and Eugenio Figueredo, were arrested in the 2015 FIFA crackdowns. Also indicted were the individuals involved with the several layers of media rights' holders for the tournament, who allegedly paid some $20 million in bribes to the officials above for those rights. It is worth emphasizing that Copa America Centenario was not tangential to those indictments; it was one of the tournaments specifically mentioned in the lengthy indictment as the leverage for hefty bribes.
Nobody was sure if the tournament would still be held until October 2015—that would be when the "seven months" countdown started—and both confederations announced Copa America Centenario would go ahead as planned. Two months later, the media rights were re-sold to a combined bid from IMG and Soccer United Marketing, the marketing arm of Major League Soccer. This is how U.S. Soccer was essentially put in charge of organizing the event on seven months' notice. Jay Berhalter, U.S. Soccer's chief commercial director, ran point on organizing the tournament, tapping his experience organizing the 1994 and 2003 World Cups.
"We have a whole industry that's come from the '94 World Cup, basically," Berhalter told VICE Sports. "Before that, there was no professional infrastructure and now we've got 20 years of a league, 22 years since the World Cup. So we have a lot of people that have basically grown up since that time frame. And we used some of them and relied on that."
For Berhalter, seven months was almost luxurious compared to the scramble prior to the 2003 Women's World Cup, which was relocated from China to the United States with only five months' notice due to the SARS outbreak.
Still, the organizers had to make some compromises given the lack of preparation time. Venues had to be decided—and game dates locked down—before the draw in February, so the group match-ups were slotted into venues before anyone knew the specific teams playing. This resulted in less flexibility. The organizers couldn't put, say, Jamaica versus Venezuela in a smaller, soccer-specific venue—rather than having 25,000 people sprinkled around the cavernous Soldier Field—because, at the time they chose the venue, they didn't know Jamaica would be playing Venezuela. Quite reasonably, they didn't want to risk the lost revenue of accidentally putting a Mexico, USA, or Argentina game in a small venue.
Gulati acknowledged as much during his press conference, saying the tournament would have been open to using sophisticated dynamic pricing models—which raises and lowers prices based on real-time demand data—but the lack of preparation time prevented them from doing so. If they were to host another tournament with more notice, he said, "We would certainly look at that again."
This brings us to the second part of Gulati's statement above: the "World Cup numbers." Given the tournament's logistical and financial success, it's hard to imagine it being a one-off. Everyone, it seems, made money. CONMEBOL and CONCACAF split the approximately $140 million in TV rights, which were won by Univision and Fox Sports during "exclusive negotiating windows" prior to the tournament's announcement—not at all a suspicious set of circumstances given the aforementioned briberies. US Soccer likely recouped their costs from its sole revenue stream, ticket sales. Copa America Centenario's end result is fundamentally honest to its corrupt origins: everyone made money.
Yet, at the press conference, none of the officials—CONCACAF president Victor Montagliani, Dominguez, and Gulati—committed to anything in the future. Dominguez offered the typical response when he said, "All ideas will be well taken."
Part of their hesitance stems from a practical consideration involving FIFA. The trick, Gulati outlined, will be getting any future tournament on the FIFA calendar so clubs are required to release their players. (Copa America Centenario was officially added to the events calendar in September 2014—FIFA's Executive Committee voted to approve this measure; both Webb and Figueredo, the indicted CONCACAF and CONMEBOL officials, were on the Executive Committee.) Every other "regular" Copa America only mandates the release of CONMEBOL players. So the path forward is either to get on FIFA's calendar on a regular basis or have CONCACAF approve the release of players as well.
For US Soccer, the hope is the tournament's success will boost their 2026 World Cup bid, though Berhalter wouldn't comment on how Copa America Centenario might influence the 2026 bid specifically. "We don't know what the bid specifications, timeline, etc. are going to be so I think it would be premature to comment on that until we know what the dynamics were that would drive that potential bid."
Nevertheless, when the time comes to assess bids, Copa America Centenario's smooth execution and economic success will surely attract supporters within FIFA, especially ones who may desire a risk-averse option after the scandal surrounding the World Cups in Russia and Qatar. Gulati likely agrees. "We hope it influences where the 2026 World Cup will be."