Why isn’t U.S. Soccer making more money from the 2024 Copa America?

Football

On June 20, the United States will officially begin hosting the Copa America for the second time, having previously hosted the 2016 Copa America Centenario. Just like eight years ago, a Copa America on U.S. soil figures to be one of the biggest — and most lucrative — soccer spectacles on the calendar.

Reigning Copa and World Cup champions Argentina — with one Lionel Messi in tow — will compete, as will five-time World Cup champions Brazil. The U.S. men’s national team will take part as well, which should raise the team’s profile ahead of the 2026 World Cup, which the U.S. is co-hosting with Canada and Mexico.

But unlike the 2016 edition, which funded the U.S. Soccer Federation’s activities for the years that followed, the Copa America this time around will offer a far smaller financial benefit to the host country.

In 2016, U.S. Soccer cleared around $75 million from hosting the Centenario, based on federation financial disclosures, as well as the recollections of multiple federation sources, both past and present. Additionally, Soccer United Marketing, or SUM, the marketing arm of Major League Soccer, won the bid to sell sponsorships for the tournament and helped U.S. Soccer with ticket sales, pumping even more money into the American soccer ecosystem.

U.S. Soccer’s cash on hand ballooned from $65.4m at the end of the 2016 fiscal year — which ended on March 31, 2016 — to $104.6m at the end of the 2017 fiscal year. That cash infusion from the Centenario meant U.S. Soccer could operate on a deficit, spending more than it was bringing in for years afterward.

This time around, however, U.S. Soccer can’t expect the same influx. According to federation sources, as well as the federation’s 2024 Book of Reports, the U.S. is receiving $10m, plus a 5% “sanctioning fee” on ticket sales (after sales taxes and facility fees). Sources expect that percentage to amount to between $10-15m, making the federation’s total haul for hosting the Copa America will between $20-25m.

So, why the much smaller windfall? In large part, it’s down to the evolving state of international soccer politics at the confederation level.

The hosting rights for the 2016 Centenario were first awarded to the U.S. in May of 2014, and a year later, the respective leadership ranks of Concacaf and CONMEBOL were cleared out by the U.S. Department of Justice’s investigation into FIFA corruption.

Jeffrey Webb and Jack Warner — then the current and former presidents of Concacaf — were among those charged with racketeering and bribery offenses. Chuck Blazer, the Concacaf general secretary, had already pled guilty. Nicolas Leoz and Eugenio Figueredo, both previous presidents of CONMEBOL, were also indicted. Additional indictments were issued to Webb’s successor, Alfredo Hawit, and CONMEBOL president Juan Angel Napout.

The firm that owned the tournament’s media rights was also wrapped up in the legal scandal, having doled out what the U.S. Department of Justice described as “tens of millions of dollars” in bribes. That allowed U.S. Soccer’s longtime partner, SUM, the chance to swoop in and take some of those rights over.

The indictments put the tournament at risk, but at the behest of then-president Sunil Gulati and then-chief commercial officer Jay Berhalter, U.S. Soccer was willing to step in and assume all of the financial risk by covering the overhead costs of hosting. This allowed Gulati and Berhalter to extract favorable contract terms that gave U.S. Soccer more tournament revenue — especially from ticket sales — via a local organizing committee (LOC) that essentially ran the tournament. Any profit the LOC made went right back into the federation’s coffers.

None of this was an easy sell to the U.S. Soccer board of directors, which needed to approve the plan to host the event. There were concerns about the reputational damage of doing business with Concacaf and CONMEBOL so close after the indictments. There was also the short lead time heading into the tournament, as well as the financial risk of putting money up front to pay for overheads. In fact, the U.S. Soccer board voted against hosting the tournament as late as the fall of 2015, only to be ultimately convinced that hosting would be beneficial to U.S. Soccer.

“In the end, we impressed upon the board the importance of the event to Concacaf and CONMEBOL as part of their [financial stability] going forward,” Gulati told ESPN.

The tournament proved to be a massive hit. Attendance reached nearly 1.5 million, and averaged 46,370 spectators per match. And in this case, to the host went a good chunk of the spoils.

Multiple sources tell ESPN that this reality later stuck in the craw of CONMEBOL. In the tournament’s aftermath, it became apparent that COMNEBOL had left a lot of money on the table, and it later created some tension between U.S. Soccer and the South American confederation. But the alternative was to not have the tournament held at all, an unpopular idea given the precarious state of each party’s respective finances.

By January 2023, the governance of both Concacaf and CONMEBOL had stabilized and the two confederations signed a collaboration agreement in January of 2023 when the 2024 hosting rights were granted to the United States. More practically, CONMEBOL — and to a lesser extent Concacaf — weren’t about to miss out financially again.

The 2024 Copa is a joint venture between CONMEBOL and Concacaf with the two confederations splitting most of the proceeds, with U.S. Soccer set to get the aforementioned $10m, plus a 5% on ticket sales. U.S. Soccer will have no role in the actual running of the tournament. There is also a sense, in theory at least, that the member associations — and not just the U.S. — should benefit from the tournament’s proceeds, which are expected to eclipse those of 2016.

“The [2016] tournament was extremely popular. I mean, we sold a lot of tickets very quickly,” said then-SUM president Kathy Carter. “Now with the run-up that they have, I anticipate it to be equally, if not greater than what we experienced eight years ago.”

There is a line of thinking within some corners of the federation that the U.S. could have negotiated a better deal. Other sources counter that U.S. Soccer did pretty well considering that they aren’t doing any of the heavy lifting as it relates to running the tournament.

When asked if the federation could have extracted more money from the tournament, U.S. Soccer CEO J.T. Batson said, “We’re incredibly excited about participating in the Copa and we think it’s going to be great for our team and it’s gonna be great for the country in the lead up to 2026.”

Certainly the financial benefits to the U.S. for hosting the 2024 Copa are more modest, but there is something to be said about the tournament priming the market ahead of the 2026 World Cup, which is being co-hosted with Canada and Mexico. The U.S. men’s national team will also benefit by getting a series of competitive games that it won’t otherwise see this cycle since there is no World Cup qualifying to keep the team sharp.

U.S. Soccer will receive $2m just by having the USMNT participate in the Copa America, plus additional prize money if the team progress to the knockout rounds. But per the most recent collective bargaining agreement hashed out with the USMNT, 70% of any prize money will go to the players, with another 9% going into the pool of money split between the men’s and women’s national teams. U.S. Soccer will receive the remaining 21%, which will amount to $840,000 if the USMNT exits the tournament at the quarterfinal stage. Suffice to say, U.S. Soccer’s coffers won’t get the huge influx of cash that it received in 2016.

It’s clear that U.S. Soccer’s influence at Concacaf and FIFA level is at a low ebb, due in part to the heavy turnover in the federation’s leadership, too.

Previously, the likes of Alan Rothenberg, Gulati and former president Carlos Cordeiro, spent decades cultivating relationships inside those organizations. That is something that current U.S. Soccer president Cindy Parlow Cone, who has been in her post for four years, as well as Batson, who was hired 20 months ago, can’t match just yet. That may change in time, and Cone was named to the Concacaf Council in 2023. Still, the icy relations between Cordeiro and some elements of the current U.S. Soccer leadership mean his position as senior advisor to FIFA president Gianni Infantino isn’t something that can be leveraged to its fullest extent.

For now, though, U.S. Soccer will have to be happy with the deal it has made, and hope that the Copa America ends up priming the pump for the 2026 World Cup.

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