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Busy Summer For Soccer Biz? Kickin’ It With Charlie Stillitano…
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. 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. 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.
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.
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 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.