Forget the World Cup: Big Soccer comes to Michigan

June 18, 2014, 5:39 PM UTC
Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Leon Halip—Getty Images

This summer, the University of Michigan will host what could prove to be the biggest soccer game ever played on American soil—and there won’t be any U.S. teams involved.

Michigan Stadium, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, is set to host two of the most valuable sports franchises in the world—defending tournament champions Real Madrid and Manchester United—for an August 2 game that is unprecedented in the area. Though the game is considered a “friendly,” as low-stakes exhibition matches are called, it is part of the 2014 International Champions Cup (ICC) tournament, which draws some of the most recognizable teams in international sports.

The ICC was only founded in 2013, but this isn’t the first match that European teams have played at a big-name U.S. stadium: in 2012, Fenway Park hosted Liverpool and AS Roma; before that, Manchester United played at Reliant Stadium and then at Lincoln Financial Field in 2010. And while most U.S. soccer matches have been exhibitions, the upcoming August match is in a league of its own for two reasons: attendance and brand power.

The match is expected to break the record for largest soccer match (by attendance) ever held in North America, a record set in 1984 when France battled Brazil for the Olympic gold medal. That match was hosted in Pasadena, Calif. and drew 101,799 spectators.

Michigan Stadium, where the match will be held, is the largest in North America and the third largest in the world, with a seating capacity of more than 109,000 people.

There are 13 matches scheduled for the ICC tournament, which will be hosted in various stadiums across America. During last year’s ICC, none of the scheduled matches sold out. Tickets to the Real Madrid v. Manchester United match, on the other hand, sold out three days after tickets went live, according to David Ablauf, the University’s associate athletic director. (An AP story says the tickets in fact sold out on the first day.) Ablauf says that the rapid-fire sell-off signals the tremendous value the match has. But it also reflects the rapid rise in popularity of international soccer here in the States.

Last year, the University of Michigan was scheduled to host the 2013 NHL Winter Classic Game between the Detroit Red Wings and the Toronto Maple Leafs, but the event was cancelled due to the NHL lockout. In a statement made before the game’s cancellation, NHL chief operating officer John Collins had estimated, “the economic impact for the week-long hockey celebration could top the $75 million scale for southeast Michigan, taking both the Detroit and Ann Arbor venues into consideration.”

Despite 2013 hiccups, the 2014 Winter Classic was held at Michigan Stadium, and broke the NHL attendance record with 105,491 attendees. That game, though between one international team and one American team, was arguably nowhere near as big as this soccer match could be, in terms of both short- and long-term cultural and economic impact.

Big Soccer also means big business. The ICC itself has drawn some of the most valuable brands in sports. But this is also a mega marketing opportunity for other household name brands and indeed, they’re hurrying to hop aboard. Guinness is an official sponsor of the tournament (there will be beer sold in the stadium during the game, which is not normally the case), as is General Motors (GM). Chevrolet recently signed a $559 million to sign on as the official automotive sponsor for the Manchester United team. Locally, small businesses like the campus’s most popular athletic retailer, MDen, will capitalize on the opportunity to increase its numbers. Traditionally, MDen only sells University of Michigan clothing and products, but it will sell merchandise for the ICC event a week before and after the match. (Fans will be able to buy, say, a Wayne Rooney jersey right in the stadium.) During the year, there is no outside advertising allowed in Michigan Stadium whatsoever. But for this special event, the JumboTron screen (though not the casing around it) will be available for brand advertising through Relevent Sports, the company hired to organize the ICC tournament.

Relevent Sports is working with local area hotels and travel providers to create a VIP travel experience package that the most rabid of fans can purchase. Considering that a large number of international spectators are likely to be in attendance, area hotels, restaurants, and other travel accommodations will be booked well in advance.

Much of the economic gains will go to Ann Arbor, but the match could also benefit the city’s struggling neighbor, Detroit. The southeast Michigan municipality—even with investment help from Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert and attention from business giant Warren Buffett—faces an uphill economic battle, but an influx of international visitors certainly couldn’t hurt. Bill Nowling, spokesperson for Detroit emergency finance head Orr, tells Fortune that the city has not projected economic gains produced by the match.

“Obviously, we believe there will be some residual economic impact for the city of Detroit, but there are no forecasts to suggest what that might be,” Nowling says. “That said, we always welcome an opportunity to showcase the gains Detroit—as a result of bankruptcy and in spite of it—is making.”

Even with the more cautious optimism and tempered expectations of local finance types, those on the field have high hopes. Associate athletic director Ablauf puts it simply: “I don’t think we’ve ever had something this big.”