The International Champions Cup as growth injection for top clubs and football worldwide

Pre-season has started for football teams of the highest European divisions. Normally it is a time to gain fitness and prepare for the new season. As of late top clubs also see and use it for commercial opportunities. Clubs travel across the globe to connect with foreign fans and to enter new markets. Since 2013 the International Champions Cup (ICC) – a tournament of pre-season friendlies – plays an important role in this. The ICC brings top (European) clubs to masses of fans in growing markets, like North America, to develop and grow the sport. At first glance a winning concept that benefits top clubs, fans and the sport.

The International Champions Cup

The 2016 International Champions Cup (July 22nd till August 13th) sees 17 teams – all except one active in European competitions – play across four continents as preparation for the new season. In the first two editions matches only took place in North America and Europe. Since last year matches are also staged in the growing football markets Australia and China.

The tournament is a good and smart business idea. Organiser Relevent Sports has created an internationally interesting product (partly build upon an existing tournament) by presenting the phenomenon of pre-season friendlies in an organised manner and marketing it right. A product, that fans in rising football markets certainly show an interest in. A 2014 ICC match between Real Madrid and Manchester United had a record numbers of spectators with over 109,000 people attending.

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Broadcasters on the other hand are interested in the broadcasting rights, because the tournament takes place in a football-scarce period.

Marketed big

Since the first edition the organisation has been able to attract top clubs. In the 2016 edition all the champions of the so-called Top 5 European competitions (Germany, England, France, Italy and Spain) participate. The participation of so many top teams results in the ICC being able to offer great matchups like the Manchester Derby (extra attractive due to the arrival of new coaches Mourinho and Guardiola, but unfortunately cancelled due to bad weather), Real Madrid versus Paris Saint-Germain and Liverpool versus Barcelona.

Large companies have sponsored the tournament since the first edition. The tournament was called Guiness International Champions Cup for example, named after former sponsor Guiness. With the expansion to other continents new sponsors have signed up, either sponsoring the whole event or one of the three sub-tournaments (Australia, China or America/Europe). Heineken, Audi, McDonald’s, TAG Heuer and Chevrolet are a few of the international companies sponsoring the tournament.

Logically there are also obstacles. The tournament has competition this summer from the European Championships, the Copa América Centenario (that took place in America) and the Olympic football tournament, resulting in several top players not playing in the ICC. There is also the absence of Major League Soccer (MLS) clubs (participated in previous editions), who are now in the middle of the season. The participation of MLS clubs would have been positive for the tournament, the fan experience and the promotion of football in America.

Offering matches of quality remains a big challenge for the organisation. Pre-season matches will seldom reach the level of competitive matches, because the focus is on preparation (fitness, tactics, etc.) and on preventing injuries. Yet the participation of so many European top teams guarantees a certain level of interest.

Growth injection for football worldwide

Since the beginning the tournament has been more than just a series of pre-season friendlies. The organisation made their intentions clear with the slogan “no friendlies, just football’ for the first edition in 2013: marketing the tournament as a serious event.

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Relevent Sports ‘provides an innovative approach to building a soccer (football) presence in the United States and around the globe’. The organisation seems to have developed a successful and moneymaking formula in which they bring the world’s biggest clubs to new and upcoming markets, like Asia and America, to inspire local fans and develop the sport.

Lately it is becoming more and more clear that Asia, and in particular China, is investing vast amounts of money in football. Stories of high transfer fees and wages for football players from European competitions (for example former Feyenoord and Southampton player Graziano Pellè) regularly appear in the news. The Chinese government invests large amounts to make the country a world football power within 10 to 15 years. A tournament like the ICC – which brings the biggest football clubs and stars to China – contributes to this goal.

In America the ICC is also of value to the ongoing developments in football. The World Championships in 2014 already had a positive impact, but the organisation of the Copa América earlier this summer and the increasingly popular getting MLS result in football becoming a much bigger sport in the country.

From making money to investment opportunity

The International Champions Cup provides international football clubs with different commercial opportunities. Where in the past overseas preparation matches were mainly being played to earn money, they are now also an investment to enter new markets. Playing in the ICC can be seen as a growth injection. Clubs get in touch with, among others Chinese, Australian and American fans. Existing and potential fans that would have seldom or never have seen their team play live. Clubs attract new fans leading to a larger fan base, new ambassadors for the brand and an increase in the sale of merchandise.

European top clubs have millions of digital global fans on Twitter, Facebook and other social media channels. To interact with Asian fans clubs are also active on the Asian equivalents of the to us known social channels, such as Sina Weibo and WeChat. Moreover websites (and web shops) are adjusted to better cater to the needs and wishes of fans in specific geographic markets. But although digital fans and tailor-made online marketing and online communication are fun and essential, having face-to-face contact and live activities makes it easier and more effective to market a club.

Overseas tournaments such as the ICC provide, besides the interaction with existing fans and bringing in new fans, a powerful platform for clubs’ sponsors. Sponsors – often major international brands – gain better access to potential clients in other geographic areas. Manchester United’s main sponsors Chevrolet seems to have become official sponsor of the Chinese leg of the ICC tournament to further capitalize on their partnership with the club.

Every year the International Champions Cup brings the best football clubs together in football markets where the sport is growing enormously. In the preparation phase of the European competitions there are now top encounters on the programme. Football clubs not only prepare for the new season, they get in touch with foreign fans, offer a platform for sponsors and enter new markets. All matters that deliver goodwill and commercial advantages.

This article first appeared in Dutch on

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