Tampa Bay Sports Day

French Soccer Takes Center Stage In New York

The New York area has not been the center of the soccer world since the Cosmos and NASL went away. The MetroStars never captured the imagination and interest of the casual fan, several indoor teams came and went, two women’s leagues opened and closed. The Red Bulls have made some great strides in recent years (one of the biggest came to fruition last weekend when they packed Red Bull Arena on a Sunday night with the Subway Series going on in Queens), but an MLS title and the eyes of the casual fan are still just outside the club’s grasp. The one time that environment does seem to change is when a high level “friendly” comes to the area, as witnessed recently by the record crowd that turned out for the Argentina-Brazil match at Met Life Stadium.

There are many signs recently that the shift to center might be coming to the Apple. You cannot pass a pub or walk down a street in Manhattan without seeing a club or national team jersey or have a bar filled with fans watching EURO2012 as it reaches its conclusion this weekend. Youth soccer continues to be on the rise in the area, and as mentioned, MLS and the Red Bulls continue to look for larger crowds and bigger marketing platforms with their star French star Thierry Henry leading the way.

The sport will also be bolstered by a number of “friendlies” in the area in July, which will see Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain play the first-ever soccer match at the new Yankee Stadium, the Red Bulls meet Tottenham Hotspur, and a match with an actual title on the line, the French Cup Championship between Ligue 1 Champion Montpellier Herault Sport Club and French Cup winner Olympique Lyonnais in Harrison on July 28.

The “Super Cup” French matchup is the traditional beginning of the French soccer season and  will be played in an English-speaking country for the first time ever. It is also the only match of the group that has something other than training and good will on the line, with stars like Olivier Giroud of  Montpellier Leading Scorer in Ligue 1 2011-12, and Lyon goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, the French national team captain and  Ligue 1 keeper of the year leading their clubs for the biggest prize in French soccer. The uniqueness of the match, the first time the Championship will be played in an English speaking country, has not been lost on the leadership of French soccer, who are hoping to use the match and raise the interest in the league outside Europe.

“We want to expose our football to a growing audience of fans; we want to expose our top clubs and the quality football they play to America; and we want to expand the outreach of French culture to a wider audience here in America,” said Sébastien Janodet, who leads the marketing for the French League. “We think we can do all these things by starting a relationship with American fans through this game at Red Bull Arena.”

While for now Henry is the best-known French player in the New York area, a broad-based awareness campaign combined with visits of the French Cup to key soccer organizations and cultural groups may change that for the future. Officials have also set a lower price for tickets for the match, which is hoping to draw 15,000 fans to Red Bull Arena for the late Saturday afternoon start.

The game will be seen globally as well, with Universal Sports televising the match in the United States (and with other regional carriers like MSG Network in New York part of the network) and Canal+ airing the match live in France, amongst many other broadcasters.

“The American soccer market is growing, there is no question, and we are proud to be bringing our club here to play for our country’s championship for the first time,” said Christophe Toni, Coordinator of Professional Team LYON. “Our goal is to develop the interest in French soccer and there is no better place to do it than in New York.”

From a brand standpoint, Lyon is also in the market for naming rights for its soon-to-be opened state of the art soccer facility, so coming to the U.S. for this match and other friendlies could not have come at a better time.

Will casual soccer fans turn out to see a title match involving two elite clubs from France in the heat of a New York summer? Three or four years ago, the answer may have been met with laughter and indifference. However this is turning into a soccer summer, and the French Cup arrival could be coming at a great time for a growing number of fans who can’t seem to get enough of “The Beautiful Game.” Soccer is a game played around perfect timing between teammates. The same holds true for marketing the sport, and French officials may be hitting New York at just the right time to score some big branding points not just for now, but for the future.