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Barcelona bring star power to NYC event as they work to expand brand

NEW YORK -- "Visca Catalunya," was the shout from the back of Smithfield Hall. It came from a solitary voice but was soon joined by the rest of the 150 people enjoying the free bar on West 25th Street in New York. Friday's event was not for Catalan independence, though, but for The Official NYC FC Barcelona Penya to celebrate Barca's stay just outside the city, at the Sheraton Hotel in Parsippany, New Jersey. Moments later, on the eve of the club's International Champions Cup opener against Juventus, Barca vice president Jordi Cardoner was one of a number of special guests to appear on the stage. Taking advantage of the excitement and the anticipation for who may or may not follow him, he led a singsong of the club's official anthem.

There were only 150 people present but there could have been a lot more. It sounded like there were more, too. Barca's New York Penya -- Spanish for supporters' group -- has 480 members but entry was limited to the first 150 to reply to the invitation. They didn't know what to expect, but they soon found out that Cardoner was not the main attraction. After his speech, Jordi Getman-Eraso, the president of the supporters' group, had the pleasure of introducing Juliano Belletti and former New York resident Thierry Henry on to the stage. The two former Barca players, after saying a few words and taking questions from Getman-Eraso, wouldn't leave until they'd had their photograph taken with every single person at Smithfield Hall.

Barca's NYC FC Penya is one of the club's 120 international supporters' groups -- the number of foreign supporters' clubs has doubled in eight years. Including at home in Spain, the club now has 1,246 in total. It's the international side they're keen to expand, though, and Friday's event in New York was one of many aimed at strengthening their links, in this case, in America. It's a market the club, with the launch of an office, a women's team, and various football schools and academies, are desperately trying to exploit. Cardoner tells ESPN FC that it's not always the easiest market to gain supporters in, though. Unlike in Asia, where football is the No. 1 sport, in the United States it's not even in the top three.

Events featuring former Barcelona stars, such as Thierry Henry, are one way Barca can continue to build their supporter base.

The square route of football is still the supporters and in order to grow significantly in the States -- where Barca are constantly looking to make partnerships with businesses and brands -- they need to have a significant support. In the New York area they seem to have that, but they're keen to enhance it. Over 82,000 were at MetLife Stadium the following day to see Neymar score twice in Barca's 2-1 win over Juventus -- a record for a football game in New Jersey. Earlier that day, almost 4,000 people had assembled at Bryant Park in New York in an attempt to create the world's largest ever human mosaic of a soccer jersey.

A similar event followed in Washington on Tuesday and one is planned for Miami, too, where Barca play Manchester United and Real Madrid respectively before returning to Spain to focus on the new domestic season. Along with New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Dallas, Houston and Doral, Florida, Washington and Miami are two of the eight cities to house official Barca supporters' clubs, a number which the club expect to grow. Barca hope all eight of their American supporters' groups will be represented in August, when the club holds its annual meet-up of fan groups. And not just the U.S. penyas, either, but penyas from as far and wide as Moscow, Beirut and Hong Kong.

"The growth of the supporters' clubs is in line with the growth of the club," Cardoner says. "Sporting excellence and social excellence, at the end of the day, is reflected in the makeup of the supporters' clubs, so it is normal for one to accompany the other.

"We want Barca's presence [in the U.S.], starting from the opening of the office in New York, to also have an influence on the supporters' clubs. We have to start bringing ourselves closer, not just for our presence in New York but also in the U.S. in general. One day we would like to have a supporters' club congress on the continent; that is something that we are working on."

Barcelona's overall goal, under the Josep Maria Bartomeu mandate, is to be turning over €1 billion annually by 2021. The club confirmed earlier this month earnings of €708 million for the period of July 1, 2016 to June 30, 2017 -- €13m more than was budgeted for. Fans are not their main source of income anymore, but without the "Visca Catalunya" chants in a New York bar, everything else becomes extremely difficult. The supporters around the world -- and thus the supporters' clubs -- are the bridge to business.

Samuel Marsden covers Barcelona for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamuelMarsden.

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