Charlie Stillitano, executive chairman of Relevent Sports, the organisers of the International Champions Cup (ICC) preseason soccer competition, discusses the plans for a new women’s event and the path ahead for women’s soccer.
The men’s International Champions Cup (ICC) was formed in 2013 by RSE Ventures, the investment vehicle co-founded by billionaire Stephen Ross, owner of the National Football League’s (NFL) Miami Dolphins, and the franchise’s chairman Matthew Higgins, with Charlie Stillitano heading up Relevent Sports as the tournament’s organiser.
Now in its sixth iteration, the event has established itself as the most high-profile summer soccer exhibition tour in the world, and has expanded to stage matches across Singapore, China and Australia, as well as the US, that give Europe’s top clubs access to new markets and the chance to showcase their players.
The 2014 edition of the preseason tournament saw a showdown between English Premier League giants Manchester United and La Liga’s Real Madrid at the Michigan Stadium, bringing in a crowd of 109,000 – the largest ever to watch a soccer match in the United States. 2017, meanwhile, boasted a marquee matchup between Spanish soccer rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid, dubbed El Clasico Miami and marking the first time the teams had played each other outside Spain in over 30 years.
The game brought 65,000 to the Hard Rock Stadium, and was the most popular soccer ticket of the season, according to resale site StubHub. The match featured, in the words of a Relevent executive, a «Super Bowl experience», presented to fans as a week-long festival, with concerts and activities for younger fans, as part of Stillitano’s ambition to make the event «more of an entertainment property» and to «cultivate the new US soccer fan».
Women’s soccer, meanwhile, has experienced huge growth around the globe. Registered female players reached 1.365 million in 2017, and the number of professional and semi-professional players more than doubled in four years to 3,572 in 2017. Off the back of this growing interest in the women’s game, Relevent Sports announced in April the introduction of a women’s International Champions Cup competition to run alongside the men’s tournament in Miami.
The event will feature English Women’s Super League (WSL) clubs Manchester City and Chelsea, French Division 1 Féminine outfit Paris Saint-Germain and US National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) side North Carolina Courage, with matches set to be staged at Hard Rock Stadium, home of National Football League (NFL) franchise, the Miami Dolphins.
Stillitano sees the introduction of a women’s International Champions Cup competition as an opportunity to capture the preseason niche and showcase the best women’s players in the world, using a festival atmosphere to take the sport to new levels with fans.
What were the factors behind your decision to launch the women’s Champions Cup event?
We really wanted to put the International Champions Cup on solid ground. We’ve worked hard to get it to the point where it’s recognised and it’s stable. We felt we wanted to get that part right. And what we’ve seen is the development of women’s soccer in Europe and most recently many of the British clubs have been forward-thinking and we even saw a lot of the traditional European clubs like Juventus saying, well we have a women’s team now. And we thought that obviously it’s the opposite side of the coin from the ICC, in that we look to Europe for the best and brightest football on the men’s side, but I think the US, it’s fair to say, has been a worldwide leader in women’s soccer. And so we thought how cool would it be to have American women’s teams against British teams, Italian teams, German teams. We thought it would capitalise on the interest here in the states in women’s football, and we think it would be a nice marriage between the two events.
This year in Miami, for example, we’re going to have the women’s tournament smack in the middle of the men’s tournament. We’re going to have a weekend of events down in Miami with these great clubs. Obviously it’s a small iteration to start off, with four teams. But we’ve had at least eight other teams express interest in European saying they wanted to be invited. It’s really to capitalise on the growth of women’s football here in the US, and the growth of women’s football worldwide. I’m a dad with two daughters and I understand how important it is for women to have a voice and it’s important in a traditionally male dominated sport, that we’re bringing in a bit of 21st century attitude to the game.
What do you see the event bringing to women’s soccer?
I see it showcasing the women’s game to new markets. I think we’re going to have a lot of community events too, because one thing the women’s game has done is bring so many younger players in. The more top level footballers you expose to the younger generation here, the better it is for inspiring and encouraging others to follow or partake. Great teams like Arsenal Women have done good things for many years, and have great players, and Chelsea Women, and that’ll bring over new fans too because they hear Chelsea, Arsenal, PSG, and they see how good these women are, and I think it raises the level of the game here.
You’ve spoken about focusing on the entertainment aspect of the men’s event, and have brought elements like festivals, activities, music, etc to the ICC in the spirit of a US Super Bowl. Is that an element you want to bring into the women’s game?
Yes, this year we are launching House of Soccer, and we basically built a whole week long activity around El Clasico last year in Miami, we had activities, it was great. So I think we’re going to do a similar thing here. Some of the female footballers are celebrities in their own right now, and many people look up to them. Our House of Soccer will be a load of activities— we launched a beach tournament with our youth partner on the Hispanic side and we brought big names out there. That has the power of giving the kids the feeling that what they’re doing is important and worthwhile and I’m a big believer in the power of sports as a vehicle to help kids mature and grow up. I think there are not enough role models for women out there in sport and so that’s the main focus.
It’s not about money, it’s about growing the game. Steve Ross is absolutely committed to growing the game of soccer in the US and Asia with our tournament and especially here in Miami. So this House of Soccer concept is about bringing the game into the community.
In Miami we’re going to have two games, we’re going to have Man City against Bayern, Real Madrid against Manchester United and we’re going to have our women’s tournament during that semi-final and final between Man City, Chelsea, PSG and North Carolina Courage. So it will be in the middle of that and the House of Soccer will have not only games for kids but also competitive games for young girls.
How do you schedule it around seasons— do you have calendar clashes?
This year was a soft launch as we weren’t sure how it was going to be received, we wanted to do it right so we led with a small group of teams, but having seen the reaction from the European and US teams, we think next year we are going to have 16 teams and we’re going to do it where it works for the schedule. The schedule is our biggest challenge every year.
I don’t see the tournament replacing European competitions. We know that we are a summer tournament and not the Champions League. But I think it’s credibility is great, it’s been recognised by so many people and that’s wonderful, but it’s not going to compete with the Premier League or Champions League. But, because women’s soccer doesn’t have those established platforms, this is a real opportunity to create a tournament that is truly important and global in nature.
Women’s sports are big in America and soccer is one growing a higher profile and this could be a great legacy for Relevent to leave. I think it will really help soccer grow— I know that sounds corny but people are saying this is a great commercial opportunity because you’re at the forefront of a movement growing women’s sport. But anyone who knows the growth of women’s soccer knows it’s a challenge to make it a profitable endeavour right now and it will take years of hard work, but Stephen Ross is invested in it. He has three daughters himself, this is something that means a lot to him, and I’m proud to be a small part of it.
Do you plan on bringing the event outside of the US as with the men’s tournament?
A hundred per cent. Because of the huge interest we have, we will definitely mirror the men’s tournament. And with the American women we have some global superstars, so I think it would be great to have events outside of the US and show their talent to other markets. To speculate some more, it would probably be in the US only next year when we expand it. But we’re keeping our options open.
Would you be commercialising it alongside the men’s tournament, and what sponsorship opportunities to you see?
We’re going to mirror the men’s event in every sense and we’re trying to get a real TV contract in place and we’re working on that. We think that there’s an incredible amount of opportunities on the sponsor side in the women’s market so that is a factor obviously. But we’re not going to be charging high ticket prices or anything, we want to drive the fans into the stadium to see these women play.
Do you see the women’s event diverging from the men’s event in the future and being packaged differently?
I think in the short term, it’s good to package it with the men, that helps the women’s game grow right now but that will change. That could even change next year. It could be a stand alone and it could be at a different time of year. We have three initiatives that are the women’s initiative and we’re going to have the youth initiative and we’re doing a youth tournament as well, for boys and girls, and that will help grow the women’s game too.
We’ve grown a lot to have the capacity to do events like this and we’re absolutely looking to make this a standalone event. We plan to expand next year to the 16 teams but I couldn’t say when we would schedule it, but with that many matches and that big an endeavour— we have 22 games across continents and different cities, to have another women’s tournament at the exact same time would be logistically a challenge so we would possibly look to separate the two next year. We have brought in people familiar with the women’s game and so we’re growing that part of the business out.
Where would you like to see the event in five years time- how would you like to see it look?
I would want it to look very similar to the way the men’s event looks now. That is our hope and the other good thing is, because the women’s game is so developed in the Western world, they have many more challenges in other parts of the world, so for me it would be great as we expand to find other opportunities. Much of the men’s game has been more of a commercial focus in China and the US, the two big markets.
But with the women’s teams, we have the opportunity to do things with more of a social conscience, shall we say. So the way I foresee it is, why wouldn’t we do it in countries like Africa, where it would be great for women to have that opportunity to play? I could see it developing differently to the men’s game in that regard geographically. But I do see it becoming as big as the men’s tournament in its own space. Whilst we’re very far, obviously, from competing with teams like Manchester United with a global reach, I think we can do something really special here.
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