Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti was in Los Angeles 10 days ago. But he wasn’t checking out the hotel or scouting the training facilities ahead of his team’s upcoming visit.
“I went to Magic Castle,” he said. “Have you been?”
It wasn’t Ancelotti’s first pleasure trip to Southern California since he has a stepdaughter who lives here. Nor will this week’s return for Sunday’s Rose Bowl friendly with Christian Pulisic and AC Milan be his first business trip here — Ancelotti and Real Madrid beat Juventus before a crowd of more than 93,000 last summer.
And the reason they’re coming back has to do with more than just the game — or the Magic Castle — because international soccer has become more than just a sport. Real Madrid is the second-richest soccer team in the world, according to Deloitte, with 2021-22 revenues of more than $778 million. It also had the world’s second-highest payroll at a reported $517 million.
And since Real Madrid has sold all the shirts it’s going to sell and drawn all the TV viewers it’s going to draw in Spain, keeping both those numbers growing requires the team to leave home and plant its flag in a foreign market every summer. Think of it as a politician hitting the campaign trail to press the flesh in search of cash and support, only not quite as sleazy. In this case, the goal is to increase the team’s already massive revenues and sign new sponsors, and both of those require growing the fan base.
“At Real Madrid, there’s a lot of supporters around the world,” said Ancelotti, 64, who should know since he’s been around the world, with Madrid marking his 10th stop in four countries during a 30-year coaching career. “And so we can give to all the supporters the chance to see Real Madrid and to show a good image.”
Real Madrid isn’t the only club doing that: Two dozen major European and South American teams will tour the U.S. in July and August, meeting fans, selling apparel and playing a series of 34 friendlies in preparation for their league seasons back home.
The tour Real Madrid is a part of kicks off Saturday when Barcelona meets Juventus in Santa Clara and includes three games in Southern California: Real Madrid-AC Milan on Sunday at the Rose Bowl; Arsenal-Barcelona on July 26 at SoFi Stadium and Juventus-AC Milan on July 27 at Dignity Health Sports Park.
The visits are nothing unique. In fact, Real Madrid first played in the U.S. in 1927 and has been back 21 times since. This century many other European teams have also made regular barnstorming across the U.S., a country most view as a large and lucrative source of fans and revenue. What is relatively new is the organized nature of the tours, which guaranteed teams preseason games against top-flight opponents in sold-out stadiums. And for that you can thank Charlie Stillitano, a former college All-American and MLS executive who, in 2013, organized the International Champions Cup, an annual summer tournament that brought more than a dozen teams to the U.S., where they played before crowds of more than 100,000, before it was scrapped by the coronavirus pandemic.
The idea was revived last summer, then expanded this year, with Stillitano as a consultant, into an eight-game tour featuring European giants Manchester United, Arsenal, Barcelona and Juventus in addition to AC Milan and Real Madrid, both Champions League semifinalists last spring. As a manager, Ancelotti said it’s that level of competition that makes the idea work.
“Competitive games in the preseason turns your team to be better when the season starts,” he said. “The second part of the preseason, we need to do friendly games, important games, more competitive [games]. And so this is the reason we are going to United States.”
The clubs could play those games in Europe, of course, but team bonding is another reason many prefer to leave home in the summer. Real Madrid has made 15 significant changes to its roster since last season while AC Milan, its opponent Sunday, last week added Pulisic, the U.S. national team star. Integrating those players, on and off the field, will happen a lot faster with the team on the road rather than returning home every afternoon after training.
“The team stays together, the players stay together, they have the possibility to increase the relationships between them. This is important,” Ancelotti said.
Whether Real Madrid returns to the U.S. next summer won’t be determined for several months, but Ancelotti will be back — and not just to visit the Magic Castle. When his contract in Madrid runs out next spring, he’ll take over the Brazilian national team ahead of the Copa América, which will be played in the U.S. next June and July.
Just don’t ask him about that now.
“I’m not thinking about next summer,” he said. “I’m thinking about this summer and this year.”
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