Interest in English football's top flight is at an all-time high across the Atlantic, and Premier League sides have been tapping into that fervor ahead of the new season.
Nine sides from the English top flight went to the USA in preseason, with 23 matches taking place in 17 states. Michigan Stadium even saw a sellout crowd of 109,318 turn up to watch Manchester United take on Real Madrid.
The appeal of the sport 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 U.S. national team 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.”
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An enormous 383,000 people tuned in to watch the final leg of Spurs’ U.S. tour and the club is very much at the forefront of the Premier League invasion.
On Wednesday, fresh on the heels of having traveled from the West Coast to the East to take on the 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 the 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 fan base, which wouldn’t normally have the chance to see the 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,” Cullen said. “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 U.S. 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, as Spurs are the most supported Premier League team in North America, according to a recent NBC poll — is built not on merely showing its face in an exhibition match but on the impression the club leaves 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 has any plans to give up on those territories. "Asia very much will adopt teams that are the successful teams of the moment," Cullen said. But the situation is different in the more receptive States. "[We've] always had a strong fan base 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."
Tottenham has benefited, too, from both the exciting style of soccer that the club is historically known to play and having a core of well-known former 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 soccer is growing in the States, particularly to youngsters. There should be little fear that he is another Bongani Khumalo or Kazuyuki Toda.
Despite more kids playing soccer than any other sport, the vast majority of the country’s best young athletes are drawn to the holy trinity of U.S. sports: baseball, basketball and American football.
Yedlin, though, is an exception to that rule and one of the first premier athletes to choose soccer 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,” Cullen said. “There is no doubt that he will become a focus for U.S. 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 U.S. is very much benefiting both sides. The club has 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 faith in them too.