Charlie Stillitano is currently the chairman of Relevent Sports, the organizers of the International Champions Cup. The International Champions Cup is the premier soccer tournament in the United States, giving American fans the chance to see some of the best teams in the world including Manchester United, Barcelona, Fiorentina and Chelsea. This year’s tournament will even feature a match in Florence between Fiorentina and Barcelona. Charlie has been working for decades on growing Italy’s major sport in America with an outsized, affable personality. He’s been extremely influential in helping soccer grow here in America, where he was the first GM of the Red Bulls. He currently hosts “The Football Show” on his SiriusXM FC and was recognized for his soccer expansion efforts as an honoree at the NYC Soccer Gala last month.
We caught up with Charlie recently to talk soccer business in the States and abroad.
You grew up around an Italian family with a passion for soccer, a game that was not yet mainstream in the States. How did you become engaged in the passion of global soccer in a world without MLS?
Coming from an Italian family definitely helped to expose me to the beautiful game. I grew up watching international games – at that time only one channel played them – and they would only play one half of the game at that! My family introduced me to Juventus. but personally, I became a fan of AC Milan – I remember watching Paolo Maldini’s debut.
For the most part I was watched national teams, especially the World Cup. By the time I graduated high school though, we had the Cosmos here in New York so there was a local presence for us to enjoy, and I even got to see Pele’s last game. Outside of watching it, I was a part of some local soccer clubs so I always stayed involved with the sport. I think kids today have a great opportunity to experience the game in a way that would have been impossible for me growing up. The International Champions Cup is something I wish existed when I was young because of how easy it makes seeing these top, European clubs live in America.
In your opinion, which brands are bigger now in the States, the elite clubs of Europe or MLS teams, and why?
Right now European clubs are bigger in large part because of the TV deals they have in the US, You can watch Barcelona o Manchester United weekly – and they have the best player which really interest fans. But, the gap is closing quickly. Just look to the Pacific Northwest, where the Seattle Sounders are one of the league’s most popular teams with huge attendance numbers year after year. They’re a big reason why Seattle will host its first International Champions Cup game this year. We’ve seen strong ticket sales in the International Champions Cup for games involving MLS teams, like the San Jose Earthquakes and the LA Galaxy. Aside from that, MLS teams are also building these soccer specific stadiums, giving the fans a home instead of feeling like visitors in another sport’s stadium. Players are reacting to this shift in interest as well, in the past few years we’ve seen some of the bigger names choose to play for the MLS like Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley.
How do you think Fox’s expanded soccer coverage going forward will change the way soccer is consumed in the US?
Fox’s dedication to soccer has really helped push the sport in the United States. The coverage has been outstanding and we’ll be working with them to broadcast this year’s International Champions Cup games as well. What’s really amazing is now there’s no difference in the production quality when you compare soccer to any of the other major American sports leagues. All the other major sports leagues have their own dedicated channels while also being aired on network and cable television. Obviously having that exposure is a huge boon to their popularity and you can see it having the same effect on soccer.
The Women’s World Cup and the Olympics will again boost women’s soccer, will a league here ever fully take hold?
The Women’s World Cup Final was one of the most watched soccer events in United States history – it was an amazing game. With that in mind and seeing the popularity around the sport, a women’s league is definitely possible. Youth engagement is very strong when it comes to the sport. The expansion of soccer overall will make it easier for a women’s league to exist, and more dedicated soccer stadiums will provide the infrastructure as is the case with the NBA and the WNBA. It’s important for a US women’s league because we’ve seen the international competition catch up to the US. For a while the US women’s team was like the Brazilian men’s team in terms of success but that isn’t the case anymore. Many countries have embraced a women’s league and it’s paid off in a better national squad.
Which global clubs will make the jump next into full engagement in the US, like Bayern Munich and Chelsea and Manchester City have?
Manchester United is continuing to demonstrate they are a completely international brand and are only gaining a stronger presence in the United States. In the 2014 ICC tournament, for example, more than 100,000 fans came to watch them play against Real Madrid at Michigan Stadium. They dominate popularity globally and they’re making their presence known in the US. Outside of that, we’re seeing Real Madrid and Barcelona step up in global recognition. American and international fans don’t always pick their teams based on region. They sometimes choose their favorite teams based on the players, for example like Real Madrid and Barcelona, who feature players like Ronaldo, Neymar and Messi that will go down as some of the best in history. For this year’s International Champions Cup, we’ve seen that stars can really sell tickets.
The MCFC/NYCFC relationship was viewed as an intriguing potential brand partnership, would other clubs try to do something similar or was this an anomaly?
It would make sense for clubs to take advantage of the infrastructure and branding already in place. In the past, there were few venues that hosted international games live, making it hard to reach the US market. But now, these partnerships can help establish connections between an American fan base and international clubs. I helped set up something similar between the Yankees/Nets and Manchester United years ago. This is something that’s been done before and will most likely be done again.
Serie A has had its issues financially, with Roma operating more and more like a commercial entity in the traditional sports business model. Do you see other Italian clubs trying to do the same, and if so, who?
I’m sure other clubs will try to emulate what Pallotta has been doing with Roma. With the new Financial Fair Play rules, it’s in a team’s best interest to bring in money so they can spend it on player salaries and transfers. In order to have a successful club you need to be able to afford holding on to your homegrown talent and bringing in talent as well. He’s really been able to turn that club around with great marketing and smart financial management. New stadiums should also help to provide fans with a more modern product. These changes along with more fresh ownership will bring Italian soccer back to its glory days.
What will it take for Serie A to reach the type of engagement that the Premier League or even La Liga have reached in the US?
The biggest factor in capturing a US audience is signing TV deals. Being on the air makes a huge difference in recognition, like I said before when I was young I could only watch one half of a game a week and the quality was nowhere near where it is now. Currently, the Premier League is broadcast heavily on television thanks to their partnership with NBC. They enjoy heavy exposure thanks to NBC dedicating 10 channels to one league. On the other hand, Serie A and La Liga have a deal with BeIn that features three leagues on one channel. BeIn needs to grow if Serie A can gain more attention, or Serie A needs to get enhanced exposure on the network.
But really the best thing Serie A can do is come tour in the United States. In the past we’ve had some of the top teams participate in the ICC but even some of the less well known clubs should make the effort to come here. This year Fiorentina will be participating in the tournament, while also having a US native representing them in Giuseppe Rossi. Rossi, from New Jersey, will be coming to play at Red Bull Arena so it’ll be a really nice homecoming for him. We’ve had Italian teams in the past like AC Milan and Inter Milan, and having fans see you live is hugely important to building a relationship with them.
Which American clubs in your opinion do the soccer business right and why?
I think the biggest MLS clubs are so huge for a reason. The Sounders and the Galaxy are great at embracing their respective cities’ spirits, managing their finances well and spending big on players when it makes sense. That’s why we chose the Galaxy to be in our tournament for the second time already. You have to put your fans first – and they do an incredible job of that. Without their passionate support the team’s success will be limited, and those two teams do it better than anyone.
What do you think will be the next breakthrough business opportunity in soccer in the US?
Soccer still has a lot of room for growth in the United States. There are many great sports markets that don’t have a team yet although there are less vacancies every year. It’s important to remember that it’s not just MLS expanding, but the NASL as well. Miami FC will be joining NASL soon, owned by longtime A.C. Milan player, Paolo Maldini, and Riccardo Silva. Live events have never been more valuable, so MLS and other soccer leagues can expect some strong TV deals. The easier it is for fans to watch the game, the larger the opportunity grows. However, the biggest opportunity in the US is for international teams. The American audience is a largely untapped one when it comes to soccer. Many fans don’t have a favorite team and it would be a boon for international teams to fill that void. One of the main hurdles in penetrating the US market in the past was fans couldn’t keep up with their teams on a week to week basis. Today, it’s simple with new broadcast deals and stronger coverage overall for fans to follow their team. But again, the strongest way to do that would be to take advantage of opportunities to play here like the ICC and friendly matches – the more exposure to American fans, the better.