(Henry Russell/Yahoo Sports illustration)

Welcome to Copa América 2024, the tournament that’s a bigger deal than it seems

The 2024 Copa América — a mini-World Cup for the Western Hemisphere — kicks off Thursday in the United States. It will stretch from coast to coast, capturing TV audiences throughout the Americas. It will feature megastars, like Lionel Messi, plus a vibrant array of Latino flair.

One of its core questions, though, is: Will casual fans in the host country care?

Millions of Mexican Americans and Colombian Americans, of Argentine Americans and Venezuelan Americans, will joyously erupt for the Copa América. This, many of them know, is arguably the most competitive men’s international soccer tournament in the four-year interim between World Cups.

But the 2024 Copa América, specifically, is a novelty in a country mostly unfamiliar with it.

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Here, then, is an attempt to familiarize you — with the basics, the narratives, the problems, and the driving forces behind this one-of-a-kind event.

Copa América is the South American men’s soccer championship, a century-old competition among the continent’s 10 national teams (and often others).

Its cadence, size and format have varied over the years. Now, it’s a quadrennial tournament much like the European Championship (Euros), played in even-year summers between men’s World Cups.

It typically features 12 teams, with two invited from other continents. But in 2024, it will temporarily expand to 16. More on that below.

In South America, perhaps the planet’s most soccer-crazed continent, it’s a massive deal. It’s historic, prestigious, anticipated, fiercely contested and festive. For years, it was massive enough to crush Messi — before finally liberating him in 2021.

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Outside the Americas, it’s a bit less so. Its global footprint is dwarfed by its European equivalent, the Euros. That, however, is largely due to western Europe’s economic might — and its willingness/eagerness to commercialize and market the sport.

At their core, the two tournaments are comparable. They’re soccer’s biggest outside the World Cup — the toughest to win, the most lucrative, the most acclaimed. And this year's Copa América, in some ways, is even bigger.

Struggling to find a satisfactory South American host, CONMEBOL — the 10-member South American soccer confederation — struck an agreement with CONCACAF, its North and Central American counterpart.

CONCACAF would help organize the 2024 edition in the United States; in return, it would get six spots in a 16-team field.

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So, the men’s national teams of the U.S., Mexico, Canada, Panama, Costa Rica and Jamaica will join the 10 traditional participants: Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Uruguay, Paraguay, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela and Bolivia.

ORLANDO, FLORIDA - JUNE 12: Beraldo #17 of Brazil, Christian Pulisic #10 of the United States and Joao Gomes #15 of Brazil at Camping World Stadium on June 12, 2024 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Mark Thorstenson/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

Argentina is the favorite. We’ve ranked all 16 teams here.

Copa América hosting duties typically rotate from one South American nation to the next — from 1989-2011, for example, each of CONMEBOL’s 10 members hosted once.

In recent years, though, the COVID-19 pandemic and instability have disrupted the rotation, and left organizers scrambling for stand-ins — first Brazil, and now the U.S.

In 2024, it was supposed to be Ecuador’s turn. But Ecuador, citing security and infrastructure concerns, relinquished the responsibility. “We’re not ready to organize the Copa América,” said Francisco Egas, the president of its soccer federation, in November 2022. So, with less than two years to go, CONMEBOL did not know where its 2024 championship would be played.

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Brazil, its biggest, richest and most capable deputy, seemed willing and able to host. But Brazil had also hosted the previous two Copa Américas — first in 2019, in line with the standard rotation; and then in 2021 when Colombia and Argentina pulled out last-minute.

So, pushed by necessity but also pulled by financial and political benefits, CONMEBOL leaders turned to the States. Conversations accelerated at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. An agreement was reached and announced in early 2023.

Yep, but that one was even more novel. It was a one-off “Centenario” edition in 2016. It was not moved to the U.S.; rather, it was essentially created by the U.S. Soccer Federation, in partnership with CONMEBOL, one year after the regularly scheduled 2015 Copa América, as a cash-grab and opportunity to pit the U.S. men’s national team against elite opponents.

Practically, though, the 2016 and 2024 tournaments will be very similar. Same format; six of the same host cities; 15 of the same 16 teams.

It was fairly successful. On the field, Chile beat Argentina in a glamorous but brutal final at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey. In the stands, 1.48 million tickets were sold, an average of roughly 46,000 per game. In total, the event generated a “one-off profit of around $80 million” for U.S. Soccer, its then-vice president, Carlos Cordeiro, said a few years later.

That’s a complicated question.

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In South America, fans always get excited about any Copa América, but some are unhappy that their crown jewel has been shipped off to North America again.

In North America, those who understand the gravity and importance of the tournament seem excited; but many non-Latinos in and around the American soccer community feel that the tournament has been poorly promoted and might fail to break through a crowded U.S. sports scene.

CONMEBOL's commercial chief, Juan Emilio Roa, told Yahoo Sports that an estimated 25-30% of match-going fans would be ones traveling from South America; most of the rest will be U.S. residents.

Roa told Yahoo Sports on June 7 that just over 1 million tickets had been sold — a little more than 31,000 per game. That’s around 50% of capacity across all games, most of which will be played at NFL stadiums.

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Naturally, matches featuring teams like Argentina and Mexico are close to or already sold-out; others, though, could be pretty empty.

CHICAGO, IL - JUNE 9: Lionel Messi #10 of Argentina looks on from the substitute bench before the national anthem before a game between Ecuador and Argentina at Soldier Field on June 9, 2024 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Michael Miller/ISI Photos/Getty Images)
Argentina, the defending 2022 World Cup and 2021 Copa América champions, are the current favorites to win this year's tournament. (Michael Miller/ISI Photos via Getty Images)

By going to CONMEBOL’s website, finding your desired stadium or game, and paying handsomely.

One reason that roughly 50% of tickets remain unclaimed is that the prices, to many, are obscene. A single upper-deck ticket for Argentina’s opener against Canada, in the second-to-last row of Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, costs $307 at the time of writing. Even for Peru-Chile at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, the following day, a standard 200-level ticket costs $208. The average tournament-wide ticket price, according to Vivid Seats, is $283.

It’s unclear who, exactly, is to blame for the obscene prices.

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Roa confirmed that they are based on the “dynamic pricing” model often utilized by American ticket brokers such as Ticketmaster and SeatGeek.

For a standard Copa América in South America, CONMEBOL would have complete control over all aspects of the matchday experience, including ticketing. But here, they have had to work with a variety of interested (and capitalistic) parties stadium-by-stadium, city-by-city. Rather than sell tickets on a single platform, they have essentially delegated that task to each venue — some of which use Ticketmaster, some of which use SeatGeek.

The complexities, and the somewhat last-minute nature of all these arrangements, have been challenges, and presumably reasons that tickets did not go on sale until late February.

They’re scattered across the U.S., in 14 different cities, with each hosting no more than three games.

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The entire schedule is here. A Copa América schedule grid can be downloaded here.

Some games, certainly in the knockout rounds, should be great. Others, between prideful but less-prominent teams stuck in cavernous NFL stadiums, will feel a bit soulless.

The tournament as a whole will probably struggle to differentiate itself from all the other high-level soccer being played in the United States this decade. But for CONMEBOL, financially, it will almost surely be successful.

“The North American market is an amazing market, in terms of everything — in terms of viewerships, in terms of sponsorship, in terms of exposure,” Roa said. The inclusion of Mexico’s national team has likely allowed CONMEBOL to tap into many millions more dollars.

“And for sure, having Argentina and Leo Messi play in this Copa America ... increased the interest around the world,” Roa added.

“We received calls and emails and contacts through our [commercial] agency, directly to CONMEBOL, from all around the world, como nunca antes, like never before,” Roa said. “Because, obviously, they have interests in the States. And all the things that happen in the States — it takes another dimension.”

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