MIAMI (AP) — As the U.S. appetite for soccer grows, more American kids are harboring dreams of becoming the next David Beckham or Leo Messi. Their aspirations, realistic or not, have not gone unnoticed by top international teams, which are trying to capitalize financially.
European clubs like Barcelona, Liverpool and Arsenal have long sent coaches to work at U.S. summer camps, but now some are opening year-round U.S. academies aimed at finding new talent while also expanding their fan bases and revenue opportunities in the states. Later this month, Barcelona will open FCB Escola Florida, its first permanent U.S academy, in Fort Lauderdale. Argentine Boca Juniors and English Everton are already operating in New York and Connecticut, respectively. Other teams are expected to follow.
The expansion of such programs is part of a bigger trend, as major international clubs try to grow their brands in the U.S. to battle for the hearts and pocketbooks of Americans today and in decades to come. Building an international fan base is becoming important for the top teams, which derive a large chunk of their revenue from overseas broadcasting and merchandising.
"If you can engage kids when they are young, then they will stay with you for the rest of their lives," says Simon Chadwick, a sports economist at England's University of Coventry.
The U.S. soccer audience is reaching new heights, with this summer's World Cup setting ratings records. NBC is paying $250 million to broadcast the English Premier League. A record crowd of 109,318 packed Michigan Stadium on Aug. 2 to see an exhibition match between Manchester United and Real Madrid. Major League Soccer is averaging more than 18,000 per game, just off its 2012 high.
When teams started opening schools around the world back in the 1990s, their early impulse was to scout and develop players. Now, their main goal is to build their brand, says Simon Kuper, the author of several books on the economics of sports.
One of the first overseas academies was launched in 1999 by Dutch Ajax in Cape Town, South Africa. The club says it produced an average of seven pro players a year. A handful of them have made it to European leagues.
Barcelona chose South Florida for its first U.S. academy and it 12th worldwide. Over 600 boys and girls attended tryouts in May, some coming from other states and countries, like Haiti, Venezuela and Canada, to vie for 384 spots. The winners will pay $3,000 annually to attend the academy, which does not include room, board or schooling. Some parents say they will move their family to South Florida if their child is picked.
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