Retired Mexican soccer star Jose Antonio “El Tato” Noriega remembers the excitement of traveling to America to play exhibition games, known in soccer parlance as “friendly” matches. With only bragging rights at stake, Noriega said soccer often took a back seat; players, instead, looked forward to visiting shopping malls and dance clubs.
“Calling it a vacation, that’s too much, but you do relax yourself,” said Noriega, who retired in 2004. “To be honest, some players were always thinking about going to the club at night.”
Giovani dos Santos and the Mexican national team will take on the Ivory Coast Wednesday at MetLife Stadium.
The United States has hosted exhibition games for decades, and Noriega has lost count of the number of friendlies he played here for the Mexican national team during his 16-year career. For teams, friendly matches provide an opportunity to try new strategies and afford playing time to inexperienced players in the lead-up to a major tournament. Players are drawn by the plethora of world-class training facilities and favorable climate, in addition to the shopping and nightlife. For fans, the games offer the rare chance to see the stars of Europe and South America in person.
For club owners, the sizable appearance fees paid by U.S. promoters create the greatest incentive. Mexican professional clubs can fetch a few hundred thousand dollars per match, with top-tier international like Manchester United, F.C. Barcelona and Real Madrid netting as much as $2.5 million per match, according to several sources within the American soccer industry.
“For the clubs it’s 99.9% about a paycheck,” said Alan Rothenberg, the former president of the U.S. Soccer Federation and one of the founders of Major League Soccer. “For the federation, [the matches] are about trying to develop the sport.”
So far, 2013 has been a busy year for friendlies, with 55 exhibition occurring between May 23 and Aug. 10. From July 31 until Aug. 7, the U.S. hosted the International Champions Cup, an exhibition tournament featuring England’s Chelsea F.C. and Everton; Spain’s Real Madrid; Italy’s Juventus and Inter Milan; and the reigning MLS champions, the Los Angeles Galaxy.
On Wednesday, MetLife Stadium hosts the latest exhibition game, which pits the Mexican National Team against that of the Ivory Coast.
Historically, the friendlies haven’t produced much compelling soccer. The games do not count toward World Cup qualifying and usually fall during the off-season for the major European leagues. Players and their employers are wary of injuries and regularly play at half-speed. Teams often leave star players at home.
“Guys were either too tired from the regular season or from going out the night before, or they just didn’t care,” said longtime U.S. defender Alexi Lalas of his days playing summer friendlies. “A lot of times it ended up being more about putting on a show.”
But the growing popularity of international soccer is slowly changing the culture of international friendlies. American promoters are demanding that foreign teams bring their star players, and those teams are feeling more compelled than ever to do so. Longtime soccer promoter Charlie Stillitano launched the International Champions Cup as a round-robin-style tournament of exhibitions, and he made teams sign contracts saying they would bring their stars. “You can’t tell a coach to play this guy or that guy, but they must come ready to play,” said Stillitano, who formerly operated exhibition tournaments called World Football Challenge and Champions World.
Commercial interests and television exposure in the United States have also incentivized the friendly games. Robert Elstone, CEO of Everton F.C., said the promise of marketing the club brand directly to American fans helped woo the team to the International Champions Cup. U.S. National Team goalie Tim Howard, a New Jersey native, currently plays for Everton, and American star Landon Donovan formerly played for the team.
“We tried to introduce the Everton brand to potential partners because we see a benefit in exposure in [the U.S.],” Elstone said. “There has to have some immediate commercial benefit as well.”
Everton finished fourth in the International Champions Cup, which was won by Real Madrid. In the final match, held at Miami’s Sun Life stadium, the Spanish club’s Portuguese star, Cristiano Ronaldo, scored twice.
While the Mexican National Team once barnstormed its U.S. friendly matches, today the club comes north with sponsorship obligations to Castrol, Home Depot and a handful of other American companies. Marketers want the star players to perform in front of brand representatives. Mexico’s lineup for Wednesday’s game includes a smattering of its stars, including midfielder Giovani dos Santos and goalie Jesus Corona. And live television coverage from ESPN Deportes and Univision in the U.S., and Televisa and TV Azteca in Mexico, means fans can see whether the players are taking the game seriously.
“[The Mexican National Team] has a really good commercial presence, and as a brand they live in the United States 365 days a year,” said Kathy Carter, president of Soccer United Marketing, which oversees the program’s commercial interests. “The games are now a small percentage of their overall business.”
While the business around the friendly matches has evolved since Noriega’s day, some aspects of the games remain constant. On Monday, Mexican defenders Diego Reyes and Hector Moreno took a trip up the Empire State Building to snap photos. “Coming to the United States always felt like something new,” Noriega said. “You were excited to come here.”
Write to Frederick Dreier at Frederick.Dreier@wsj.com
A version of this article appeared August 14, 2013, on page A19 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Money, Exposure Make Soccer Friendlies Even Friendlier.