“After I had the team, I said: ‘Hey, I have this empty stadium. How do I get into this?’” Ross said. “People in this country want to see the stars, that’s what they’re mostly interested in, and seeing the great teams in the world. That’s what they’ll really pay for and go see.”
Ross’s vision was to turn what was effectively a ticket-selling operation into one that sold the television rights to the matches globally and sealed large sponsorship agreements — a proposition that was, potentially, far more lucrative. After losing millions of dollars during its first four years, the I.C.C., Ross said, will turn a profit this year.
The marquee matchup is between Barcelona and Real Madrid in Miami, the first time the rivals have played each other outside Spain in over 30 years. Unlike the other matches in the I.C.C. this year — all of them glamorous matchups like Barcelona-Juventus, or Real Madrid-Manchester United, or United-Manchester City — Barca-Real is being sold not so much as a game but as a dayslong festival. A “Super Bowl experience,” in the words of one Relevent executive.
It is a model Relevent hopes to repeat, perhaps soon; Barcelona’s president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, said last week that the teams were already discussing doing it again. Stillitano will surely be happy to arrange it.
Big Names, Big Games
When Barcelona defeated Juventus by 2-1 on Saturday night at MetLife Stadium, it did so in front of 82,104 fans and on the strength of two goals by Neymar, its star Brazilian forward. The largest soccer crowd in New Jersey history saw two teams play their first-choice starters for at least 45 minutes, and Juventus pressed hard for the tying goal until the final whistle.
“We cringe when managers say it’s just a training session,” Stillitano said, one day after the new Barcelona manager Ernesto Valverde dismissed the match — his first in charge at the club — as “not an official competition.”
Maldini, the former A.C. Milan and Italian national team defender who works as an I.C.C. ambassador, disagreed. “82,000 fans?” he asked rhetorically. “This isn’t a friendly. There is no friendly game at this level.”
This is what Stillitano and Relevent Sports want American soccer fans to believe: that the I.C.C. is a serious endeavor and a fixture on the soccer calendar, not a glorified exhibition tournament or a brazen cash grab.
“I think it is incumbent to ensure that we keep improving the quality of the matchups themselves, and keep positioning the I.C.C. as really the big reveal,” said Matt Higgins, the co-founder and chief executive of RSE Ventures, which owns Relevent Sports. “It’s the first time when everyone who has been thirsting for soccer to return gets a taste of the most important narratives.”
It is up to Stillitano to book the actors, and to sell the narratives, but he has been in the game long enough to know that when you have all the biggest names in soccer in one place, the buzz takes care of itself. The most important narrative on Saturday was whether Paris Saint-Germain would succeed in an audacious bid to pry Neymar away from Barcelona. Martin Kallen, the chief executive of UEFA, the governing body of soccer in Europe, joked that he was in town just to “see which players are on the Barca roster.”
For Stillitano, watching Neymar’s Barcelona torment the Juventus back line, it didn’t really matter how the Neymar drama ended, only that everybody was talking about him.
After all, Paris Saint-Germain is playing in the International Champions Cup, too.
A Turf War?
This isn’t the only professional soccer currently being played this summer in the United States, of course. Major League Soccer is in the middle of its regular season, and an important regional championship, the Gold Cup, just finished a three-week run.
Soccer United Marketing, M.L.S.’s marketing arm, owns the commercial rights to both of those properties, as well as various others, and that makes them direct competitors of Relevent for consumers who may not even be aware of that battle. Both sides say nice things about each other — the phrase “a rising tide lifts all boats” was used repeatedly in recent weeks by executives on either side — but in the end they are pushing two fundamentally different visions of soccer in America.
Major League Soccer believes that the I.C.C. is a two-week sideshow and that it has the deeper relationship with American soccer fans. Relevent Sports counters that American fans want to see the highest level of the sport, and points to full stadiums for its matches as proof that it is right. While the pie of revenue in American soccer may be growing, it is hard to believe each company doesn’t covet the chance to cut into the other’s share.
In the meantime, Stillitano is more concerned with decidedly first-world soccer problems. And sometimes appeasing billion-dollar clubs and making all of their leaders feel as if they’re his favorite isn’t as easy as it looks.
Take, for example, the swimming pool. Both Real Madrid and Manchester United wanted to be based at the University of California, Los Angeles, which created a problem with facilities. More specifically, both teams wanted to use the same swimming pool after training sessions.
To resolve the issue, Stillitano first went to the Real Madrid manager, Zinedine Zidane, and told him Relevent would build a pool for his team. But Zidane wasn’t having any of it. So Stillitano went to his good friend Mourinho, the United manager, with the same offer.
“José said, ‘I trust you,’” said Stillitano, who admitted that he then faced the frightening reality that he had no idea how to build a pool, or even if U.C.L.A. would allow him to do it. (The university did, and the pool was built.)
In many ways, the pool was symbolic; in the I.C.C.’s fifth year, and in Stillitano’s second decade of putting on friendlies, Relevent has logistics like that down to a science. But despite Ross’s deep pockets, and despite Relevent’s long-term deals with some teams, soccer remains a relationships business.
And nobody has stronger relationships than Charlie Stillitano.