Man U Tour Raises Profile

Champions World Series raises soccer's profile in the summer

In order to figure out how Charlie Stillitano filled several large stadiums well before the kickoff of seven games in 13 days this summer, just work backwards. He wanted to stage successful soccer events.

Stillitano's experience as New York's venue director during the 1994 World Cup and as general manager of the MetroStars taught him that the variety of soccer audiences in the United States have one thing in common - they respond to big events. And for exhibition games to be big events, they must involve either national teams on the cusp of important competitions or the most widely followed club teams in the world. And in the latter case, those big clubs must bring their full rosters. And for those big clubs to bring their full rosters, the games would have to be strategically timed, just before the start of their seasons. And for them to feel the travel was worthwhile, they had to play more than one game.

Voila! There will be seven games in 13 days, most of which sold out by late June. It wasn't quite that easy, of course, but Stillitano's understanding of those basic factors, combined with his connections in the soccer world (most importantly with Manchester United chief executive Peter Kenyon) helped create what appears to be the most successful series of soccer exhibitions this country has seen.

''A whole lot of little things had to come together,'' Stillitano said. ''But it has really caught fire. From the time that Manchester United began developing a relationship with the Yankees and became interested in building their brand over here, a tour was always a possibility.''

With United the first team on board, lining up other powerhouse clubs like Juventus, AC Milan, Barcelona and Celtic was easier than it might be otherwise, Stillitano said. United will play four matches, one each in Seattle, Los Angeles, New Jersey and Philadelphia. The three ChampionsWorld Series games not involving United are in Cleveland, Boston and Washington.

Stillitano heads ChampionsWorld, the 3-year-old marketing company that organized the games with a full-time staff of 15 people. During the games, about 200 part-time employees and volunteers will work for ChampionsWorld - another fringe benefit to the stature of the clubs involved.

''The best thing about having stadiums full ahead of time,'' adds Stillitano, ''is that your top people can focus on the logistical side of things instead of worrying about 'Can we pay the bills?'''

An interesting sidebar to the teams will be what types of crowds occupy the stadiums. Jim Trecker, senior communications advisor for ChampionsWorld, said that the first identifiable segment of fans to scarf up tickets were die-hard supporters of Manchester United and Celtic.

''We had people calling the first day from Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan saying they bleed Celtic green,'' Trecker said. ''The stadium in Seattle is going to be a remarkable sight, a real photo opportunity.''

After the widespread supporters clubs for Man U and Celtic, the next most common ticket buyers seemed to be families, Trecker said.

A monkey wrench of unknown size was thrown into the works when Man U's mega-star, David Beckham, was sold to Real Madrid in mid-June. While some published reports said ''the buzz was off,'' the tour, not one person or media member called to complain or ask for a refund, according Trecker.

''There was no stutter-step in ticket sales and none within the media component,'' Trecker said. ''Now, will a TV crew from Entertainment Tonight be at the games? Probably not. But when the dates were first announced, we didn't get hundreds of phone calls from people saying they had to see Beckham or Del Piero or Giggs. It was about Man U and Celtic and Juventus. Of course, it's a pity that [Beckham] won't be here, but it's about the uniform.''

Trecker said that more than 1,000 media members applied for credentials and that as many as 400 journalists may be at each game - akin to a World Cup first-round match. The true measure of Beckham's absence, however, won't come until after the games are finished.

At one point, MLS and its partners attempted to buy their way into at least a share of the tour, according to sources. But Trecker said that direct MLS involvement faded as an option early in the planning stages.

''This is a free-standing event and we're not staging it as competition for MLS,'' Trecker said. ''Our goal is to provide high-profile, well-promoted, well-managed games as a summer-time event. It's not about grabbing the market share or trying to hurt anybody. This will get people talking about soccer.''

Ivan Gazidis, deputy commissioner of MLS, said that any event that raises the attention on soccer in this country helps the league.

''It is a good thing that clubs, not just Manchester United, are interested in coming here and showing their product,'' Gazidis said. ''It validates our view that there's a growing market for soccer in this country and it draws a wider, general sports audience to the game. I can't see any negative aspects.''

Stillitano said ChampionsWorld is already planning games for next summer and admitted that subsequent years pose the challenge of maintaining a fresh and exclusive feel. Varying the teams and venues will help offset the risk of staleness, he said.

Many decisions about next year will hinge on the lessons learned this year. But if the robust presale proves to be a valid indicator of interest, these seven games will be quite successful. With a month to go, Trecker was getting downright giddy.

''What a year for soccer,'' he exclaimed. ''The Gold Cup, Manchester United, the Women's World Cup - no country in the world has a calendar like this.''

by Soccer America Senior Editor Will Kuhns

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