The money-spinning world of football's pre-season tours

Pre-season is no longer about getting fit: nowadays it’s all about the cash, but at what cost?

Peter Iantorno June 24, 2015

Picture the scene: A sell-out crowd of vocal supporters roar their appreciation as the superstar players of Manchester United and Real Madrid, two giants of the footballing world, take to the field.

The match has all the makings of a classic. The partisan crowd is a sea of red, and it’s making a noise typical of the Old Trafford faithful on its famous European Champions League nights.

However, despite appearances, this match isn’t taking place in Manchester – or Madrid, for that matter – and it doesn’t have a major trophy riding on its result. No, the match is actually being held in Michigan, USA, and it is essentially a pre-season friendly.

Not that the locals care, of course. Such is the interest in these two European giants, a record-breaking crowd of 109,318 fans pack into the University of Michigan's "Big House" Stadium, making it the largest football (or ‘soccer’, as they would call it) match in US history.

The match took place in August last year, with both clubs playing in a tournament called the Guinness International Champions Cup (ICC) as part of their pre-season tours of the US - and for what it’s worth, it ended up 3-1 to United, with the Red Devils going on to win the tournament, beating Liverpool in the final.

It was the second time the ICC had been played, after starting in 2013 with the likes of Real Madrid, Juventus, Chelsea, Inter Milan, AC Milan, Valencia, Everton and LA Galaxy all taking part in the inaugural tournament (Real Madrid won, beating Chelsea in the final in front of 70,000-odd fans).

Due to their participation in the 214 ICC, Manchester United pocketed around $20 million in appearance fees alone

While winning an extra piece of silverware before the season has even started is always nice, clearly a tournament that has only been in existence for two years wouldn’t be able to convince the elite teams to fly halfway round the world to take part for prestige alone. So what else could the ICC possibly offer? The answer is incredibly simple: money – and lots of it.

Manchester United, Rooney and Fletcher lifting ICC trophy 2014 Darren Fletcher and Wayne Rooney lifting the 2014 International Champions Cup

Due to their participation in the 214 ICC, Manchester United pocketed around $20 million in appearance fees alone, not to mention the massive exposure to American fans, which not only pleases the club’s many sponsors but will also no doubt have boosted merchandise sales.

And it seems that money men at the major clubs know a good thing when they see one, because this year the ICC is coming back again, bigger and better than ever, taking place not only across North America, but also with some games in Australia and China.

Again, the list of participating teams reads like a who’s who of elite football, with the likes of Barcelona, Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain and all the other top teams who turned out in the previous iterations (Real Madrid are actually appearing in both Australia and China!). 

But with every club being paid handsomely for the privilege of turning out, the cash has to come from somewhere, and as well as big-money deals for advertising and television coverage, it seems that the average fan is the one who has to foot the bill. 

For this year’s tournament, the cheapest ticket available for Chelsea’s match against European Champions Barcelona in Washington on July 28 comes in at $164.65 once the Ticketmaster fees have been applied, and the best seat in the house will set you back over $1,040.

And that’s not even the pricest match to go to. If you’ve got your heart set on the already sold-out match between Barcelona and Manchester United at the Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara on July 25, tickets are changing hands online for up to $1,300.

The ICC isn’t the only big-money tournament taking place this summer. There’s the Emirates Cup on July 25 and 26, featuring Lyon, Villarreal, Wolfsburg and the hosts, Arsenal; the Barclays Asia Trophy on July 15 and 18, with Everton, Stoke, Arsenal again and a Singapore XI featuring; the Audi Cup on August 4 and 5 between AC Milan, Tottenham Hotspur, Real Madrid and the hosts, Bayern – we could go on…

Yaya Sanogo Arsenal Emirates Cup Yaya Sanogo slots in, as Arsenal thrash Benfica 5-1 in the 2014 Emirates Cup

So clearly it makes financial sense for the major teams (and Stoke) to jet off on tour over the summer months, pleasing sponsors and increasing foreign fanbase, but at what cost?

Manchester United boss Louis Van Gaal and Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho have both spoken out against the gruelling pre-season schedule of travelling, claiming that the lack of real break for the players has an adverse effect on their performance, leading to more injuries come the end of the season.

However, despite their protests, the two clubs’ appearances in this year’s ICC will see them rack up some 31,400km between them, as they travel from their bases in Manchester and London to numerous cities across the US.

Gone are the days of pre-season matches being low-key affairs, with teams playing their local rivals and free entry for all. In modern football, money talks.