FC Barcelona sees women's soccer, futsal as big opportunities in U.S.
FC Barcelona's story starts like that of so many other giant world soccer clubs who view the United States with wide eyes: They see a market increasingly hungry for soccer and seemingly limitless in potential.
But what is unique about Spanish super club’s vision is the means by which it sees a path to success, which maybe shouldn’t be all that surprising given how the club’s style of play serves as the inimitable gold standard of the modern era.
“MLS or the other leagues, men’s soccer is absolutely no interest to us,” says Arno Trabesinger, the managing director of FCB North America LLC, the club’s North American arm which opened an office in Manhattan earlier this week.
Our board decided last year that women[‘s soccer] is the strategic part of our future growth, not only in Spain but on a global basis.”
Trabesinger isn’t talking about not working with MLS and the rest of the U.S. Soccer community; Barcelona wants to take part in growing the sport in the U.S., and that includes Major League Soccer. Trabesinger, FC Barcelona president Josep Bartomeu and other club delegates met with MLS commissioner Don Garber earlier this week to pick his brain on the landscape.
Rather, Trabesinger notes that FC Barcelona has no interest – in the immediate future, anyway – in operating or partnering with an MLS team in a situation such as the now defunct Chivas USA, an MLS offshoot of the famous Guadelajara club which played in MLS from 2004-2014 in front of paltry crowds.
FC Barcelona sees two paths for growth in the U.S.: women’s soccer and futsal.
Bartomeu stated earlier this week that the FC Barcelona wants to start a team in the National Women’s Soccer League, the U.S.’ top flight for women and arguably the best women’s league in the world, top to bottom. Trabesinger confirmed to FourFourTwo USA that 2018 would be the earliest possible start date. He said he has previously met with NWSL commissioner Jeff Plush and Sunil Gulati over the past few months.
“It is clearly our goal to play FC Barcelona in the NWSL,” Trabesinger says.
Plush issued the following statement to FourFourTwo on Friday:
“We’ve had informal discussions with a number of groups interested in the NWSL. As we work through our expansion plans with our Board, we will have more to say about those discussions and groups in the future.”
Details remain fuzzy, and whether or not FC Barcelona is as far along internally in its NWSL research as it makes itself appear externally remains in question. This week's declaration of NWSL interest from Barcelona took many around the league by surprise, suggesting there's far more to be done than the media buzz would suggest. Trabesinger acknowledges that discussions are still in the preliminary stages, but says “our president is very deeply informed.”
“Our board decided last year that women[‘s soccer] is the strategic part of our future growth, not only in Spain but on a global basis,” Trabesinger said.
New York, Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area are all markets which FC Barcelona has identified.
“We are looking all over the country,” Trabesinger said. “Our target is from New York to California, but obviously New York is in terms of media, sports franchises, the biggest in the country. We are not only interested New York but in the U.S.”
Reports last week stated that 2018 MLS expansion club LAFC is in line to land an NWSL expansion team as early as 2018. Plush told Fox Soccer last month that California is the league’s main target for the next round of expansion, which seems more likely to be 2018 and not 2017 with each passing day, though the late additions of Houston ahead of 2014 and Orlando ahead of 2016 serve as warnings that things change quickly.
The chairman of City Football Group, which owns and operates MLS’ New York City FC, recently stated that CFP is looking into “potentially” starting a professional women’s team in New York just like the successful ones it operates in Manchester, England, and Melbourne, Australia.
The NWSL has a 75-mile radius by which it defines each market, meaning any franchise wishing to play in New York City would require the approval of Piscataway, NJ-based Sky Blue FC.
Focusing on futsal…and New York
What is clearer geographically for FC Barcelona is its desire to place a professional futsal team in New York City.
The Professional Futsal League is set to kick off in 2018 and features some big-name backers headlined by Mark Cuban, owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks. Los Angeles Lakers owner Jim Buss is among those also involved, as well as fellow European superclubs Real Madrid, PSG, Juventus and Bayern Munich, the latter of which also recently opened a New York office.
Trabesinger says that while New York is the sought-after market for the league, FC Barcelona is “in the pole position.” The club has not yet committed to joining the PFL, but Trabesinger describes current talks, which began with Cuban in February, as “intensive” and they hope to have a decision very soon.
Still, why futsal? The answer for those involved in the PFL lies in potential.
“The marketability is really unique,” Donnie Nelson, the president of basketball operations for the Mavericks and executive director of the PFL, told FourFourTwo last month. “In a lot of respects, I think we can become the urban solution for U.S. soccer, because a lot of kids in inner-cities don’t have access to fields, and they’ve got a lot of natural talent, but they don’t have the infrastructure to really get in involved with soccer.”
Futsal, a five-a-side indoor version of soccer played roughly on the dimensions of a basketball court, is one of the fastest-growing sports in the world and the United States. FC Barcelona is well aware.
“I think that futsal has a bright future in this country because it’s much easier to play futsal, especially if you think of Manhattan,” Trabesinger tells FourFourTwo USA. “In our point of view, the futsal is the entry of many kids in the big soccer, so in our point of view it has a tremendously bright future and we want to continue to support the project of futsal in this country. Our futsal team in Barcelona is one of the best in the world and we can bring a lot of expertise.”
Focusing on the kids
FC Barcelona’s goals in the U.S. market are two-fold, one more obvious that the other: There is commercial growth opportunity. Growing the brand in the increasingly global world where no country borders, nor time zones, nor even continents need to define fandom.
But Barcelona also sees an opportunity for social change. Speak with Trabesinger for a few minutes and the idea is clear that educating children is central to the club’s approach. FC Barcelona’s foundation supports about 700,000 kids across the globe, he says.
FC Barcelona's New York office, which currently has four employees, will look to draw off the success of its 12-employee Hong Kong office.
Sport is business. Soccer in Europe, in particular, is big business. But Barca still feels it has a social responsibility. The club’s New York office launched earlier this week in unison with an agreement with the City of New York to develop the club’s “FutbolNet” program, which educates children through soccer.
“We not only want to grow soccer with kids, we want to give to people – children – in this country through soccer.”
FC Barcelona sees the National Women’s Soccer League and the to-be-launched Professional Futsal League as avenues to do that. We’ll see if those plans come to fruition.
Jeff Kassouf is the editor of FourFourTwo USA. Follow him on Twitter @JeffKassouf.