Copa America Centenario might be held in the United States, but so far home-field advantage belongs to Mexico.
Its national soccer team enters its quarterfinal match against Chile on Saturday in Santa Clara, Calif., on the longest unbeaten streak in its history. It is proving to be the biggest box-office hit of the tournament, in terms of ticket sales and television ratings. Its games have become not only a sporting event, but a celebration of identity for Mexican Americans.
And corporate America is paying attention — for when it comes to soccer in the United States, the Mexican national team is big business.
“Every time they play it is a Super Bowl for our audience,” said Juan Carlos Rodriguez, president of Univision Deportes, the New York-based Spanish-language network. “Soccer is part of the DNA of Hispanic immigrants to the United States and national teams represent a lot more than a game. They represent home and many, many things.”
Mexico’s first three games in the tournament drew an average announced attendance of 70,200, and tournament officials announced Thursday that the quarterfinal vs. Chile had sold out. El Tri’s match against Jamaica on June 9 attracted 5.4 million viewers to Univision, the largest television audience for any Copa America game so far and the most-watched sporting event in the United States that day, including Game 5 of the Stanley Cup finals on NBC.
The Mexican team counts international brands such as Coca Cola, Visa, All State, Bud Light and AT&T among its many commercial partners. John Guppy, president of Illinois-based Gilt Edge Soccer Marketing, which has handled several sponsorship deals for the team, says many companies see El Tri as the easiest way to reach a large slice of the Hispanic market. Hispanics make up 18 percent of the U.S. population, according to census figures.
“There aren’t many companies in America that aren’t thinking, ‘How do I connect my brand with the Hispanic consumer?’ and when they ask that question they look at the numbers and see that 64 percent of the Hispanic population are Mexican Americans.
“In some ways the easiest way to target the Hispanic demographic is to go for the Mexican demographic and when you look at that demographic and their passion points, then soccer is one that bubbles to the top of the agenda,” Guppy said.
The appeal of El Tri overshadows that of the U.S. team, which drew an average attendance of 51,360 in its first four Copa America games, including its quarterfinal victory in Seattle late Thursday night. But in business terms, American soccer also benefits from the success of its on-field arch rival.
Since 2003, the Mexican team’s commercial activities in the U.S. market have been handled by Soccer United Marketing (SUM), which is the commercial arm of Major League Soccer and also represents the U.S. Soccer Federation. SUM puts on an average of five exhibition games involving Mexico each year. A healthy slice of the revenue from those events and from sponsorship deals cut by SUM is distributed to the owners of MLS teams. In recent years El Tri has drawn big crowds to friendly matches all over the country, including NFL stadiums in Charlotte and Atlanta.
“When you think about it, it is hard to think of a sports property that has more appeal nationwide than the Mexican national team,” Guppy said.
That appeal, of course, is greatly enhanced by the feeling that the current team is capable of something special. After a series of coaching changes, Colombian Juan Carlos Osorio has succeeded in turning a generation of talented individuals into a well-organized group that is playing effervescent attacking football. El Tri has won nine of the 10 games it’s played under Osorio, and its 1-1 draw in its most recent match, against Venezuela, extended its unbeaten streak to a program-record 22, the longest active streak of any national team in the world.
Star striker Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez has been supported by the exciting wing play of Jesus “Tecatito” Corona, who scored one of the tournament’s finest goals with a solo effort against Venezuela. Andres Guardado has matured into a top-quality midfielder while captain Rafa Marquez, 37, holds the team together with his leadership skills and astute defending.
All of those players have significant experience in European soccer, home to the world’s top professional leagues. Pavel Pardo, a retired former member of El Tri who also played in the German Bundesliga for Stuttgart, believes that exposure abroad has helped lift the Mexican team to another level. Pardo also senses a feeling among Mexican fans that their team could go all the way in Copa America.
“They are waiting for a big moment. What is the big moment? To get to the final and win the championship,” said Pardo, No. 2 on Mexico’s all-time list with 148 games played for the national team over a 14-year span ending in 2009. “The feeling around the team is great but you have to respect the rivals. Chile have great players. They are the Copa America defending champions. This is going to be a great, great game, a very intense and strategic game.”
As the team advances, ticket demand is rising. According to Rukkus, an online marketplace that aggregates tickets from other secondary sellers, the average price for Mexico’s quarterfinal match on Saturday was $489, over $300 more than for the U.S.-Ecuador quarterfinal on Thursday and double the average for superstar Lionel Messi and Argentina’s match against Venezuela on Saturday. Mexico’s group games raked in more than $2.5 million in secondary ticket sales alone, according to Jake Sharpless, a Rukkus digital marketing manager.
“We are the only national team in the world that can sell out all their games in another country as well as their own,” Pardo said. “When the national team comes to play, the community come out and show their pride. They feel, ‘This is my country and this is my team.’
“It’s amazing. It only happens for Mexico.”
Note: The author is a contributor to a Univision.com blog about Copa America Centenario.