MIAMI -- 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.
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.
Marcel Bombonato, the managing director of Kaptiva Sports, official partner of FC Barcelona in the U.S., says scouting is one of the goals. But beyond teaching soccer, the club wants to convert children into Barcelona fans.
Some 3,200 children attended seven soccer camps held this summer by Barcelona across the eastern U.S. Each day they listened to the team’s "Cant del Barca," and at a recent Miami camp most of the 245 children clad in Barcelona colors clapped their hands and chanted the chorus, "Barca, Barca, Barca."
Many parents see these programs as an opportunity for their children to showcase their talents and hopefully be recruited for the team’s La Masia academy. Messi left Argentina for Spain at the age of 13 after being discovered by a Barcelona scout.
Ali Rafique brought his 6-year-old son Toby to the camp in Miami from Dallas. Toby trains more than 20 hours per week between his practices with a personal coach and the Dallas Texans under-7 team. He wants to eventually play for Barcelona.
"I am gonna work hard to make his dream come true," said his father.
Argentinian Boca Juniors, known as one of the largest exporters of players to the leagues in Europe, opened its academy in Long Island, New York, in March. The team is still recruiting 200 boys and girls aged 4 to 23.
Mariano Berenstein, the CEO of Boca Juniors in the U.S, says that unlike other international teams, Boca Juniors is concerned with developing local talent, rather than just monetizing the brand. He said that other teams promise young children that they have a chance to play at their home-based academies and advance up to the main team. Instead, Boca Juniors wants to build an American version with the hope that the most talented players would play in MLS.
We will not make "empty promises" to players, Berenstein says.