Americans are quietly assembling the powerhouse soccer league Europe fears

Capitalism keeps creeping into the soccer picture.
Capitalism keeps creeping into the soccer picture.
Image: Eduardo Munoz/AP Images
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More than 80,000 paying fans turned up in New Jersey last night to witness a match between European soccer giants Bayern Munich and Real Madrid—not even a competitive match, simply a pre-season exercise.

Yet many attendees payed $150 or more for the privilege, because players on the pitch included global stars like James Rodriguez and Xabi Alonso. The fans enjoyed a tight match that went 1-0 to Madrid.

It was broadcast in 160 countries, part of a tournament called the International Champion Cup that essentially monetizes pre-season play of the best professional soccer teams in the world, the same way the US National Football League puts its own slate of warm-ups on TV. Since the best professional teams in Europe all play in different leagues, however, it took a third party to make it happen.

Like many American soccer projects, the young US-based ICC was first seen as kind of a joke. Pre-season tours of the United States have long been a tradition of Europe’s high-flying clubs, a chance for brand-building, but were mostly sleepy occasions where teams of young up-and-comers faced off with local American squads.

Charlie Stillitano, an American soccer promoter who began his career managing stadiums during the 1994 World Cup, and his partners at Relevent Sports saw opportunity in the growing US interest in soccer, the commensurate interest in the US market from European teams, and the internet-driven need for more live content on TV networks. In 2013, just eight teams from England, Italy, Spain and the US played in the US in what was derisively referred to as the first “Charlie Stillitano Cup.”

This year, 17 teams, including the champions of England, Germany, Italy and France, played in ICC games in the United States, Europe, China and Australia. Despite logistical problems in China, where bad weather sent planes and pitches awry, the “tournament” has been a success, offering entertainment at a time of year when US sports networks are often a loss for content, putting butts in seats—and for the teams, offering global exposure and high-quality training before the real season begins.

The idea of creating a global ”super league” is a common sports bar argument. It’s often opposed by football purists who celebrate the local traditions of each national league. Yet the lucre such a league might command is a compelling argument on its own, at least to team owners and marketers. And the ICC is a demonstration that the minimum viable product works.

Stillitano says that the ICC brings in more than $100 million in revenue during its twelve-day run, and now they are looking for ways to make it a sustainable, year-round business. That includes wedging more matches into other breaks in the soccer season, and using venues in countries like Brazil and Dubai, even creating a “post-season” tourney.

But there are darker suspicions. At a March meeting with executives with top European leagues, Stillitano reportedly discussed the possibility of restructuring the Champion’s League into something bigger, saying that  ”teams could easily represent Tokyo, Beijing and New York to take on the big European and South American clubs in a World Super League.” Such musings led one UK reporter to characterize him as “a modern-day Gordon Gekko who talks a good game but has no understanding of what makes this one great.”

Stillitano demurred on such ideas in an interview with Quartz, merely pointing out that the demand for global soccer still, somehow, appears to exceed its supply.