By Ridge Mahoney
The announcement Wednesday that a special centenary edition of the Copa America will be played in 2016 featuring Concacaf teams may both help and impair the Gold Cup.
Copa America Centenario 2016 will severely test the U.S. market’s appetite for international soccer, which to date has been mostly the province of European club teams, the Mexican national team, and the Gold Cup, the Concacaf regional championship played every two years. The past few Gold Cups have been scattered in stadiums across the country and that seeding process will again be in play as markets get their largest doses of a relatively unknown product. Visits by South American club teams are very rare, and while the national teams of Brazil and Argentina occasionally pass through, there’s not much interaction aside from exhibitions that appeal to the Colombian, Ecuadoran, and Peruvian communities.
Presumably, the 16-team tournament will feature four groups, likely anchored by the USA, Mexico, Argentina and Brazil. The field will be comprised of all 10 Conmebol teams, and six from Concacaf. The United States -- as host -- and Mexico – as the biggest draw – will automatically be entered, with the remaining four Concacaf slots to be allotted by performances in the 2015 Gold Cup.
The tournament should draw huge television audiences in Mexico, Central America, and South America, though its appeal on U.S. television is hard to predict. Record TV ratings were generated by the European Championship last June but the Copa America and the Gold Cup are less visible properties.
A major player such as ESPN and its Spanish-language outlet ESPN Deportes is an obvious broadcast partner, yet newcomer BeinSport has a lot of cash as well as English and Spanish outlets. If these and other outlets bid big for the seductive newcomer, the other properties may suffer.
This proposed tournament, alluring as it is, might hit the saturation point for the U.S. market. Jamming yet another competition in between the 2015 and 2017 Gold Cups -- assuming those competitions are staged in the U.S. -- despite the allure of South American talent, may devalue the regional competition and stretch the market too thin.
MLS scheduling is already bogged down by the Gold Cup, World Cup qualifiers, and international club exhibitions. Dropping 31 more games into its markets, as well as taking away American players, isn’t going to sit well with the Board of Governors. Remember how miffed executives were to learn of an expanded Concacaf Champions League that in effect drove their SuperLiga out of business?
And what will be the effect on the two dozen or so European club exhibitions staged every summer in the U.S.? Those games draw big crowds and generate huge revenues as well as media exposure; can Panama-Venezuela come close? And if the Copa America Centenario does well on TV and at the gate, it will surely shove the Gold Cup further into the background.
If there’s one competition that can’t afford to take a step back, it’s the Gold Cup, which is light years better than its rinky-dink debut in 1991, yet still struggles for significant television coverage and media presence. No longer does it need guest teams – Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador – to shine up its image and pump up its crowds, and despite its flaws has established an identity that greatly benefits U.S. Soccer and MLS.