By Ewan Roberts
In the 1960s it was Beatlemania. Now another British import is sweeping the United States. For so long football – or soccer, as the natives call it – was belittled on the other side of the Atlantic but now they are starting to take it seriously. And, in turn, Premier League clubs are taking notice.
Nine sides from the English top flight went to the USA in pre-season, with 23 matches taking place in 17 states. The Michigan Stadium even saw a sell-out crowd of 109,318 turn up to watch Manchester United take on Real Madrid.
The appeal of football has never been stronger in America, thanks in large part to both the growing stature of Major League Soccer – which has recruited the likes of David Villa, Kaka and Frank Lampard this summer alone – as well as the success of the USMNT at the World Cup and the expanded coverage of the Premier League on NBC.
“I don’t think it will drop off quite as it usually does after a World Cup, I think the level of interest is actually going to grow,” Tottenham executive director Donna Cullen told Goal. “Certainly the numbers on ESPN who watched our match against Chicago indicate that.”
An enormous 383,000 people tuned in to watch the final leg of Spurs’ US tour and the club are very much at the forefront of the Premier League invasion.
On Wednesday, fresh on the heels of having travelled from the west coast to the east to take on Seattle Sounders, Toronto FC and Chicago, Spurs announced the formation of a Florida-based youth team now known as Tallahassee Tottenham Hotspur as well as the signing of next-big-thing DeAndre Yedlin – now the most expensive homegrown player.
For Tottenham, at least, there’s much more to their relationship with the United States than any sort of faceless, money-spinning gimmicks at which the cynics might hint, with an enormous emphasis on engaging with a pre-existing fanbase, who wouldn’t normally have the chance to see their side play, and helping develop the sport.
“After we had the invitation to be part of the [International Champions Cup] tournament, we opted to actually do our own thing and play MLS teams because, for us, it was all about fan growth and engagement,” says Cullen.
“If you were a Seattle Sounders fan and you were looking for an English Premier League team to support, having us go and visit and play and engage was a really good opportunity for us to grow fans on the existing soccer fans in the US. That’s why we did the three teams and all MLS teams.
“When you design your own tour you can then build in all of the extra activities, which we’re always keen to do.
“And then we take both our global coaching and our foundation out there, so we do grassroots football coaching and the charitable foundation engages as well, and then we look to leave an ongoing partnership somewhere related to that club and that area.”
Tottenham’s appeal – and it is vast; according to a recent poll by NBC, they are the most supported Premier League side in North America – is built not on merely showing their face in an exhibition match but on the impression they leave behind. “They’ve seen that we don’t just go in and then leave. We’ve actually put roots down in various areas.”
It is, ultimately, a more open battleground than, for example, the Asian markets - not that Tottenham have any plans to give up on those territories. "Asia very much will adopt teams that are the successful teams of the moment," says Cullen, but the situation is different in the more receptive States. "[We've] always had a strong fanbase there there’s a lot of word of mouth that goes on and American fans that like soccer will look to pick their English Premier League team, and hopefully we’ve demonstrated a good position in rationale to be that team of choice."
They have benefitted, too, from both the exciting style of football that the club are historically known to play and having a core of well-known ex-Spurs players plying their trade in MLS. “It raises our profile. We’ve got three players in the top 10 for jersey sales - Robbie Keane, Clint Dempsey and Jermain Defoe - so we’re always well represented out there ... having seen them play with us, and then having them in MLS, you have that natural synergy.”
Yedlin’s arrival raises that profile further but, while American players provide a “connection point”, arguably what the right-back signifies more than any kind of marketability boost is how rapidly the appeal of football is growing in the States, particularly to youngsters, and there should be little fear that he is another Bongani Khumalo or Kazuyuki Toda.
Despite more kids playing football than any other sport, the vast majority of the country’s best young athletes are drawn to the holy trinity of US sports: baseball, basketball and American football.
Yedlin, though, is an exception to that rule and one of the first premier athletes to choose football over other sports. He reportedly ran the 40-yard dash in 4.2 seconds – the current combine record is held by Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson, who went 4.24 in 2008. That Yedlin is soon to be playing in the Premier League, rather than the NFL, marks an important shift.
“He's a great signing based purely on his footballing ability and what he can bring to Spurs and our style of play,” concludes Cullen.
“There is no doubt that he will become a focus for US audiences - even more importantly, he has shown how it is possible to come through the ranks at an MLS team and make it to the top of the game, having been a product of Sounders' academy.”
There is an increasingly false impression that the Premier League’s expanding relationship with the United States is just a tactic to milk an enormous American audience but Tottenham’s association with the US is very much benefiting both sides. The club have made a conscious effort to help develop the game from grassroots up and in many ways Yedlin’s arrival, far from a PR exercise, brings that work full circle, not just helping coach American youngsters but putting their faith in them too.