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Few places in sports scream "blue" (with a touch of maize) as loudly as the Big House, yet Michigan Stadium will be a blanket of red on Saturday.

Manchester United and Liverpool, perhaps the two most iconic clubs in the English Premier League and with both a shared color and a mutual loathing, will do battle in Ann Arbor as part of the International Champions Cup.

The tournament, in which 18 of the world's biggest teams square off as part of their final preseason preparations, has provided further proof of America's appetite for top-level soccer. Yet it also raises the question of if, and when, soccer's European heartland will take steps to broaden its core product beyond geographical boundaries.

With a strong crowd expected this weekend for a preseason game, it makes many wonder what might be possible if a regular-season game from the EPL, or Spain's La Liga, or the Champions League, was to take place in the States.

"I am sure it is going to happen," Charlie Stillitano, chairman of ICC organizer Relevent Sports, told USA TODAY. "When you look at the people involved, it just makes too much sense. As for when? That's the multimillion-dollar question."

When Stillitano references the people involved, he is alluding to how there are numerous ownership crossover links between American sports and the EPL. The Glazer family controls both United and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. John W. Henry owns the Boston Red Sox and Liverpool. Stan Kroenke has both Arsenal and numerous American sports entities including the Los Angeles Rams, while Fulham's Shahid Khan has the Jacksonville Jaguars as part of his portfolio.

And it has escaped no one's attention that the NFL has had significant success in playing games overseas, most notably London, where it has staged 22 matches over the past 11 years. The NBA has held eight regular-season games in London and six in Mexico City since 2011. Major League Baseball has headed to Mexico, Australia and Japan.

"I think it is inevitable," Stillitano added. "You have to think it is a natural progression. These clubs are big brands that have done an incredible job in their home countries. If you're looking at it, how are they going to get huge further growth at home? It's not really possible; everyone already loves it.

"As we know, the U.S. is a big market and it is going to be appealing."

Soccer is a traditional sport but it is not necessarily mired in historical conformity. There is only one way for leading European clubs to stay there, by continuing to spend money on new players. Therefore, anything that adds a fresh revenue stream is bound to be strongly considered.

In 2008, EPL chairman Richard Scudamore unveiled a proposal for a "Game 39" - a ground-breaking idea that would have seen each EPL team play one extra game a season, with that match taking place in a foreign country. It was loosely suggested that three of the 10 games would be staged in North America. Fans, players, and the British media reacted with apoplexy, and the idea was quickly quashed.

Adding a game would disrupt the EPL's perfect competitive imbalance, whereby every team plays each of the league's other squads once at home and once on the road.

But Stillitano sees solutions. If an entire round of matches played overseas was too much, what about one game a season? To allay criticism, concessions could be offered to season ticketholders in the form of lower prices.

"You could fill five jumbo jets with English fans and fly them out," Stillitano added.

If one obstacle is that teams would be unenthused about giving up home-field advantage, then how about a Cup final? The Champions League is likely out of the question, but the Europa League could be a possibility, or the European Super Cup, where the Champions League and Europa League winners meet in a one-off game.

"American fans have shown their commitment to this product," Stillitano said. "It would be an incredible reward for them and the clubs would benefit. As ever, with change, there is going to be some resistance. I think they will overcome it."

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July 27, 2018
 
 
 

 

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