NEW YORK — An erroneous report on the future of the Copa América had cyberspace all aflutter last week.
According to the missive, the venerable South American tournament – the world’s oldest national-team competition – was on the verge of dropping the “10 CONMEBOL countries plus two guests” format in favor of “10 CONMEBOL countries plus six CONCACAF countries” model, making for a 16-team tournament similar in format to the quadrennial European Championship.
One reason so many people responded credulously to the story is that it seemed to be sourced well, boasting quotes (later shown to be taken out of context) from Chuck Blazer, a member of the FIFA Executive Committee and big-time mover in world football. If something like this was going to happen, Blazer would have to be at the forefront.
The other reason people believed the story is because the re-format makes so damn much sense.
Competitively, a “Copa Américas,” as Blazer called it, is a winner. While CONCACAF isn’t as strong a federation as CONMEBOL, the North American teams that have played in the Copa as guests since the institution of the 10+2 format in 1993 have more than held their own.
[inline_node:320765]Mexico have made at least the semifinals in four of the last five Copas and twice finished runners-up. Honduras were a late addition to the field in 2001, yet still managed to grab third place.
The US team made the semis in 1995, topping their group and putting a memorable 3-0 hurting on Argentina in the process.
Costa Rica, the other CONCACAF team to have participated in that timeframe, have advanced to the knockout stages two of the three times they’ve played in the tournament.
So any suggestion that CONCACAF participation would water down the event is, at best, ill-thought-out. At worst, it’s uninformed snobbery. Despite the fact that, beyond CONCACAF’s “Big 4,” the pickings are a little slimmer and the teams certainly less consistent than they could be.
Then again, the likes of Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica both have better recent World Cup bona fides than Bolivia, Peru and Venezuela. Throw in a potentially revitalized Salvadoran team, or Guatemala producing a crop of talent akin to their Honduran and Costa Rican neighbors, or even the Canadian Fed getting their act together and putting out a side that’s equal to the individual talent on their roster (a la the 2007 Gold Cup), and suddenly there aren’t so many pushovers on the docket.
The hang up, then, is where it always is: logistics and money.
On the logistical side, the Copa has historically had trouble finding its niche. Originally styled as the South American Championship in 1916, it was an event sometimes held every year. Sometimes every other. Sometimes every third year, sometimes with a fixed host and sometimes without.
After an eight-year layoff following the 1967 tournament, the Copa América returned with its new moniker in 1975 and was held every four years, again with no fixed venue, until 1987. At that point it was held every two years with a host country, a format maintained for 14 years.
With the conclusion of the 2001 tournament, CONMEBOL decided to change yet again, to an every-three-years format. That lasted one cycle.
A 2005 vote put us where we are today: The Copa is held every four years during the summer following the World Cup. The host country is determined by alphabetical order. The 2011 event—to which the US were not invited—will take place in Argentina.
It’s a pretty convoluted and confusing history.
There’s also the simple problem that, as it’s scheduled, the Copa butts up against the Gold Cup, CONCACAF’s own championship tournament. With a berth in the Confederations Cup on the line in the Gold Cup (i.e., in '07 and '11), CONCACAF sides will always choose to deploy their full team in North America and send a reserve squad to South America.
This is where the money part comes into play. The Gold Cup is biennial in odd-numbered years, and that’s not going to change since so many CONCACAF votes belong to countries—particularly the small island nations of the Caribbean—that have few other real revenue streams. These teams all play Gold Cup qualifiers and occasionally qualify for the tournament proper, resulting in both invaluable competitive blooding for their respective squads and and nice pay-day to boot.
So since the Gold Cup won’t change, that means the Copa would have to adjust yet again. The best solution, doubtless, is to play the Copa in the middle of World Cup cycles, with the group phase kicking off as the European Championship hits its quarterfinals.
It’s a long way from coming to pass, but Blazer wouldn’t have mentioned it—he told Grant Wahl of Sports Illustrated that there were some serious discussions about this potential format change several years ago—if there wasn’t some thought that it could happen.
[inline_node:317807]And there are millions of dollars, er, reasons it could. And perhaps should.
For comparison’s sake, let’s take the recent World Cup final between Spain and the Netherlands. That particular contest was watched by 21.7 million people in England and did even better in the US, picking up 24.3 million total viewers.
Currently, the BBC and ITV are negotiating with UEFA for the British rights to the 2012 European Championship. The networks want to pay £52 million. UEFA wants about twice that much.
In US dollars, using the current exchange rate, that’s a low-end target of $82 million for broadcast rights that UEFA get for their 2012 tournament. For a soccer audience that’s smaller than what we have here in the States.
Even if the Copa América rights-buy would be a fraction of that amount (incredibly likely), it’s still a lot of money to leave on the table for CONMEBOL and CONCACAF. And it’s even more in terms of potential money, especially here in the US where we’re just now learning how to tap the soccer market.
Of course, this is all still speculation on something that’s at least a half-decade away, if it happens at all. But where speculation and economic incentives meet, solutions usually find a way to present themselves.
Matthew Doyle can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed at twitter.com/MLS_Analyst.