The American Dream: A Champions League Final in New York City?
A little over a year after May's showpiece in Kiev between Real Madrid and Liverpool, Europe's marquee match-up will return on June 1st, 2019 in Madrid. In just under 9 months, the continent's elite will play in Atletico Madrid's new stadium, the Wanda Metropolitano, which boasts a capacity of around 68 000 people. Fast forward another year, and this time UEFA's crown jewel will be hosted in Istanbul's 76 000-seat Ataturk Olympic Stadium, home to such teams as Galatasaray, Besiktas and the Turkish National Football Team. However, a decision on where 2021's edition will take place has yet to be taken, and its this indecision that has created rampant speculation among journalists, pundits and tabloids alike, as normally the decision is made more than 3 years prior to the event. In a surprising twist, a major rumour being floated around is that for the first time ever, the final will be headed outside of Europe, with New York City being named as a primary candidate. Obviously, this idea has proven to be quite controversial. Some see it as a great opportunity to expand the beautiful game into North America where it has been growing its popularity has been growing exponentially, while others see this idea as nothing more than a shameless cash grab that betrays the sport's history and main fan base.
Logistically speaking, a Champions League final in New York City could easily be viable. Since the game is the last of the season, the travel required wouldn't conflict with any league's schedule. It also has a good potential venue in the MetLife Stadium which lies just 10 miles away from downtown Manhattan. With its capacity of 82 500, it would be the largest final since 2013's match at Wembley. Furthermore, it is a proven sports city. The MetLife stadium's average attendance for the 2016 NFL (American football) season sat at over 78 000, or over 94% of its capacity. NYCFC (New York City Football Club) plays at the much smaller Yankee Stadium which, when being using for football, has space for 27 470 spectators. The club's average turnout last season was around 22 500, which represents 81% of its maximum. This is a higher percentage than FC Barcelona (~71%) and about equal with Real Madrid's (81%), although the larger a stadium is, the harder it is to fill. One can only imagine, however, how city-wide (and even nation-wide) interest would spike if such a prestigious event were to be held. A common stereotype is that Americans do not care for the sport, they call it soccer, they find it boring and they don't find it "manly" enough (especially when compared to other more physical ones such as American football and hockey).
However, this is becoming less and less true. The MLS' rapidly accelerating growth shows the country does possess a large football market. In just one year, the average team's worth went up by 20%, and up 80% since 2013. Revenues also continue to soar: as recently as 4 years ago, the league was collectively losing 100 million dollars a season, whereas today the average team is making 32 million annually. The massive preseason games held in the United States also reflect the country's change in attitude, as 109 318 fans were in attendance for Manchester United vs. Real Madrid in 2014, filling up the nation's largest stadium (Michigan Stadium). 105 826 turned out for Chelsea vs Real Madrid in 2016, and another 101 254 went to this year's ICC clash between Liverpool and Manchester United as well. This hasn't gone unnoticed by the top 5 leagues either, as La Liga have already announced their desire to play regular season games there as soon as next season, although this motion has been met with opposition from both managers and players. This begs the question: should the UCL follow suit?
While economically sound, the controversy focuses less on the viability of such a proposition and more on the ideologies behind it. After all, the UEFA Champions League is supposed to be a showcase of European football and has nothing to with the United States. North America even already has its own version, the CONCACAF Champions League. Detractors liken it to having the NFL's Superbowl in London or Paris. Despite all the expansion the beautiful game has done there in recent times, its prominence pales in comparison to its popularity and dominance overseas.
LA Galaxy, the MLS' most valuable, had reported a value of 315 million dollars last year. This isn't even enough to crack the worlds top 50 most valuable clubs, all of which are located in Europe, where the English Premier League (5.5 billion), the Bundesliga (3.7 billion), La Liga (3.5 billion), Serie A (2.3 billion) and Ligue 1 (1.9 billion) will combine for a projected total of 16.9 billion euros (or 19.8 billion dollars) for the 2018/19 season. Major League Soccer made a respectable 851 million euros (or 995 million dollars) in 2017. Again, this leads many to critique the apparent unfairness of the situation and how out of place it would be. Players, managers, owners and especially fans pour so much time, effort, passion and money into watching and funding the high quality, entertaining football there is in Europe, so it seems very unfair to have the Champion's League final, the season's showstopper and the culmination of a year of hard work happen in a place where many of them could not see it due to travel expenses and timezone differences and the hosts are apathetic by comparison. UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin has said himself that "the idea isn't being discussed at all".
Whether it turns out to be a hopeless pipe-dream or a potentially game-changing revolution, we'll see where the state of club football takes us next.