With no room to grow in Spain, Barca woo US fans

Team members of Barcelona pose for a shot before their International Champions Cup (ICC) football match against Manchester United, on July 26, 2017.
Team members of Barcelona pose for a shot before their International Champions Cup (ICC) football match against Manchester United, on July 26, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON • In 1937, a cash-strapped Spanish football team went to the US in an effort to stay afloat during a brutal civil war back home.

The club spent three months in North America, playing a handful of exhibition matches that saved the team from bankruptcy.

Eight decades later, Barcelona returned to the US in much better shape. They are one of the most valuable teams in the world and their American expansion is critical to the club's plan to reach about US$1.2 billion (S$1.63 billion) in annual revenue.

In addition to playing games in the US last month, Barcelona are opening a residential academy in Arizona, part of a wider network of training facilities, and are in talks to launch a California-based franchise in the National Women's Soccer League. Both concepts would be firsts for a European club.

"We want to lead in the project of introducing soccer to more and more young people in the US," Barcelona president Josep Bartomeu said. "We know that if we teach them soccer, they will be soccer fans, and probably most of them will root for Barcelona."

It may be hard to imagine the US as a growth market, but among football people, it is the object of everyone's affection.

There are significantly more football fans in the US than there are people in Spain. And, unlike in India and China, the US' Internet, television and social media infrastructure make it easy for teams - and their sponsors - to reach those potential fans.

"It's the largest market in the world in terms of programming and advertising," said American Jim Pallotta, an owner of Italian club Roma, which was one of the earliest to push into the US.

All of Europe's top football clubs have basically tapped out their local markets.

Football is the dominant sport, club allegiances are regional and there is plenty of direct competition.

Speaking for Barcelona, Bartomeu summed it up: "We cannot have more supporters in Spain."

No football team appeared on US TV more last year than Barcelona (78 matches), according to Gilt Edge Soccer Marketing.

By becoming popular with American fans, clubs become more valuable to corporate sponsors.

Japanese e-commerce company Rakuten recently agreed to pay Barcelona €55 million (S$88.17 million) a year as its jersey sponsor. The four-year deal hitches Rakuten's future in the US to the Spanish club's growing appeal there.

"How much is a big company willing to pay you for being your jersey sponsor? Part of the answer to that is how you demonstrate your relevance in major markets around the world," Gilt Edge founder John Guppy said. "Investments in the US just strengthen your story to future partners."

As a blueprint, Bartomeu points to Barcelona's Hong Kong office, which opened in 2013. It helped secure the Rakuten partnership and accounts for about 22 per cent of the club's marketing revenue.

Bartomeu said that the club's year-old New York office can eventually do better. All that will be critical for the club's goal of reaching US$1.16 billion in revenue by 2021, a 51 per cent jump from its US$770 million revenue in this fiscal year.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 02, 2017, with the headline 'With no room to grow in Spain, Barca woo US fans'. Print Edition | Subscribe