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Gulati: Hosting Copa America not a proving ground for World Cup bid

The U.S. Soccer president sees Copa America as a great opportunity, but a standalone one.

Sunil Gulati was confident Wednesday that the Copa América Centenario opener between the U.S. and Colombia, scheduled for Friday evening in Santa Clara, California, will sell out. If it does, that certainly won’t be surprising. A tournament host vs. a tournament favorite ranked fourth in the world at a state-of-the-art, two-year-old stadium is not a tough sell.

Interest in the rest of the 16-team competition, however, isn’t so clear cut. This Copa América is unique in so many ways. There’s the institutional corruption and indictments that almost killed it off last year. There’s the timing—North and South American national teams usually aren’t that busy during Olympic summers. There’s the odd fact that CONMEBOL is celebrating the centenary of its championship in a CONCACAF country. And then there’s the nature of the title on offer. Maybe there should be a “championship of the Americas.” But there isn’t one, at least until now. Is it contrived? Is it overdue? How much do the competing federations and players even want to be here?

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We’ll begin to find out Saturday, when Costa Rica meets Paraguay in Orlando, Haiti plays Peru in Seattle and Brazil takes on Ecuador at the Rose Bowl. Those are the sort of games that form the meat of the group stage, and speaking to, Gulati acknowledged that some are more attractive than others. The U.S. Soccer Federation president, however, anticipates that this hastily-arranged competition will wind up meeting expectations on and off the field.

Behind the scenes, there’s plenty of big-event experience and infrastructure. And on game day, there are famous athletes and several powerful teams with something to play for. 

“It’s a big event, and I think our goals will be met by the time the event is over in terms of attendance and interest,” Gulati said. “We can’t control what happens on the field and obviously very much helps shape people’s impressions and memories of the event. But there’s a lot of star power, and we open with a great game with the U.S. and Colombia.”

One of the biggest stars of all, Neymar, isn’t here. Gulati said organizers thought there might be a chance the Barcelona forward would come because the Olympics conflict with the club’s preseason. But it wasn’t a surprise when he opted to represent Brazil in the Olympics instead. It’s the only major competition his country hasn’t won, and he wasn’t going to pass up the chance to end that wait on home soil.

“There’s always some of that,” Gulati said, regarding the speculation of who might back out. “All the South American teams recognize it’s the 100th anniversary of their prestigious tournament. Some maybe have more to prove than others, but the teams have brought their best available players. Obviously there are some injuries and in the case of Brazil, Neymar. But everyone has brought the best players who are available to them and they’re taking it seriously. That’s a plus. Argentina, Messi is still without a big win for his country, so it’s special for them. It’s also important for some of the other teams because they have huge followings in certain markets in the U.S., so they’ll feel like they’re playing in front of a home crowd and they won’t want to disappoint.”

Those factors are expected to result in an average tournament attendance of 35,000, Gulati said. That will be sufficient to make the federation’s investment worthwhile.

As the host, U.S. Soccer is responsible for operations like security, field installation and maintenance, training sites and coordinating travel, as well as identifying and working with partners on a host of other tasks.

“It’s not cheap. We have an economic model we think will work,” he said. “There was never the expectation to sell out every game … Some markets have done very well where there are popular teams or ethnic fan bases or whatever it might be, and other games are slower in sales, which is true for every tournament whether it’s the World Cup, Euro or the Gold Cup. At the World Cup, almost everything eventually sells because it’s the World Cup.”

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The schedule was arranged so each of the 10 venues hosts at least one of the four seeded teams (USA, Mexico, Brazil and Argentina) or a match in the knockout rounds. Each of the Copa’s 32 games will be televised on Fox and Univision channels. Fox paid $15 million for the English rights and Univision spent $60 million on the Spanish rights, according to Sports Business Journal. In early May, IMG and Soccer United Marketing—the MLS subsidiary that handles sponsorships and promotions for events throughout the U.S.—announced that sponsorship inventory had sold out.

U.S. Soccer keeps the ticket income while sponsorship, commercial and TV rights revenue belongs to CONMEBOL and CONCACAF.

“One of the challenges of this event—although we joke about the fact that we could put on a World Cup with very short notice—this tournament has been put on with short notice,” Gulati said. “That always makes things more challenging both commercially, in terms of sponsor sales, TV, ticket sales. There hasn’t been as much time as originally planned.”

The Copa was set only in October, once it was confirmed that executives and marketers caught up in the FIFA bribery scandal wouldn’t be involved and a process was established to fairly apportion third-party contracts.

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Many in the U.S. will hope that quick logistical turnaround and the attendance figures Gulati is targeting will help the federation make a case to host the 2026 World Cup. Of course, U.S. Soccer felt it made a pretty good case when the 2022 rights were awarded. Gulati said that while he’s still waiting for FIFA to establish the bidding rules and parameters before committing, there should be no doubting the U.S.’s ability to successfully stage a second World Cup.

“This will be a very good event that’s starting Friday,” he said. “What it means for the future, for either another event like this or what it means for our bid or anything else, I don’t know. This is a great, standalone event. We’ve proven we can do big events in the U.S. and have them have a great response, pull them off operationally. But this isn’t to launch our World Cup bid or something like that.”

FIFA has launched a “consultation process” scheduled to end in May 2017 that’s expected to establish the rules and regulations of the bid procedure. By this October, it should decide on the number of teams that will contest the 2026 World Cup and which nations will be eligible to host.

“A few things have to be determined—a few big things and a lot of smaller issues,” Gulati said. “The size of the tournament is a pretty big start. Gianni [Infantino] has talked about 40 teams, so that’s one. What the bid rules are, who can bid, which continents can bid in terms of rotation and all the specifics of the bid, what the process is, what the timetable is, what the rules are—all of those things still have to determined. Until we have a handle on all those issues, we’re certainly not going to make any decisions about bidding.

“There will be a technical report [required],” he continued. “That can be used to rule people out. There was last time, too, but it was ignored. So we’ll see what happens.”

For the moment, the 2018 World Cup remains the focus. There was a moment in March when a home loss to Guatemala could have derailed American efforts to qualify for Russia at the first hurdle—an unthinkable setback for a country that’s participated in seven straight tournaments. But the U.S. eased past Guatemala, 4-0, in Columbus, putting its qualifying campaign back on track. And the Americans now seem to be on an uptick thanks to the contributions of several talented newcomers. Last week, coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who was under considerable public pressure in March, said his team was targeting the Copa semifinals.

“It’s always strange when you set out goals—realistic goals versus hopeful goals. I never dream about playing in semifinals is the best way to put it,” Gulati said when asked about Klinsmann’s aim, implying you should dream to win it all. “I think the attention on this tournament will be very high regardless [of the U.S.’s performance]. Obviously it’s always helpful when the home team does well. But it’s two separate things. I’ll let Jurgen set out the goals that he has. My comment is, I rarely dream about playing in a semifinal.”

There's no indication that Klinsmann’s status is under threat. At this point, he’d have to fail to qualify the U.S. for the World Cup to lose his job. But the mood around the team (attendance has been below 10,000 for the four home friendlies in 2016) and the buzz surrounding the tournament will be impacted by its performance.

“In terms of benchmarking where we are after the somewhat difficult year we had [in 2015], it would be good to get some good results and get prepared for the next round of qualifying,” Gulati said. “Obviously in all these tournaments the first goal is to get through the first round. That’s always true, especially in a tournament like this where half the teams played in the second round of the World Cup and four were in the quarters and all of that.

"It’s a tough competition.”

In the end, despite scandal and its uncertain place in soccer’s established structure, Gulati hopes that is what this Copa América is considered. That will attract attention. And if it leaves an impression on a future 2026 voter or two, all the better.