The Soccer Power Broker You’ve Never Heard Of

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Charlie Stillitano, the chairman of Relevent Sports, which puts on the International Champions Cup, at the Barcelona-Juventus match at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., last Saturday. His relationships in world soccer have been a core building block of the tournament.Credit
Bryan Anselm for The New York Times

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Charlie Stillitano wanted to make sure I saw the traditional exchange of gifts between Barcelona and Juventus at halftime during their match at MetLife Stadium here last Saturday, so we left his suite and walked into one nearby. Inside, board members of the two famed European clubs shook hands, exchanged trinkets and smiled for photographs.

“It comes from European protocol,” Stillitano said as a way of explaining the elegantly awkward moment, a fixture of matches between top European clubs rarely replicated in American sports.

The real stars of the show, though, were the soccer legends mingling nearby. Pavel Nedved, the Czech star who once ran the Juventus midfield, posed with a signed jersey. Paolo Maldini, Italy’s greatest defender, and Andrea Pirlo, a World Cup winner in 2006, exchanged small talk. The former Netherlands midfielder Edgar Davids walked into the suite halfway through the exchange of gifts, clad in his trademark goggle sunglasses, and made a beeline for the buffet.

In the middle of all of these beautiful people, smiling and laughing, glad-handing and posing, the master of his domain, was Stillitano. He alone knew everybody in the room. He was the one who had brought Barcelona and Juventus together for the match that night, and he is the one who will host a similar scene on Saturday, when Barcelona plays Real Madrid in Miami.

Who is Charlie Stillitano? The salt-and-pepper-bearded and perpetually gregarious son of a New Jersey cookie factory worker, Stillitano, 57, might be the most powerful, most well-connected soccer power broker you’ve never heard of.

How connected? The former United States national team coach Bob Bradley, who has known Stillitano since they were teenagers, tells this story.

Just before Christmas in 2015, after José Mourinho was fired from his second stint as the manager at the English club Chelsea, Bradley wanted to send him a note.

“After things went down at Chelsea for José I wanted to send him a message, because he sent me a great message after I was fired as national team coach,” Bradley wrote in a text message. “I wasn’t sure I had his best contact number, so I messaged Charlie and asked him to send it on my behalf.

“One minute later Charlie sent me a picture of the two of them. He was with José.”

The Insider

Stillitano has no official role with any club, or any league. Instead, he makes his living in soccer as the chairman of Relevent Sports, the promoter that put on the Barcelona-Juventus match in East Rutherford and 11 others across the United States this summer. The tournament, collectively known as the International Champions Cup, and including a corresponding Asian version in China and Singapore, has quickly become the most high-profile summer exhibition tour in the world.

The connections that Stillitano brings to the tournament, and that have made it a success, mean he is full of stories like Bradley’s. So many of them, in fact, that he frequently interrupts the telling of one to begin another, making even a few hours with him a veritable matryoshka doll of Charlie stories.

He will tell you about playing against Bradley in high school and alongside him at Princeton. He will introduce you to Martin O’Connor, a lawyer whose clients include the former Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson and who has known Stillitano since they became fast friends as 13-year-olds.

He will tell you all about dining with Ferguson — “Sir Alex says the best restaurant in NJ is Charlie’s house,” Bradley texted — or how he served as a ball boy at a 1973 friendly in Jersey City between Lazio and Santos, the Brazilian club then featuring Pelé. The stories have become so synonymous with Stillitano that if you Google the Santos friendly to check a fact, you’ll find a number of the top results about the match are Stillitano’s recalling it for other reporters.

This is Stillitano the salesman, the marketer. A man who has remade his career selling European teams on the commercial promise of America, and American sports fans on the promise of top-level soccer. And it is temping to conclude that with his stories, Stillitano is selling you, too. But this isn’t entirely true, because he has the track record to back him up.

He will ask Pirlo to spend time with you, and Pirlo will dutifully comply, shifting his daughter onto his lap so you can ask him about the value of preseason friendlies. (“It’s not important, the result, but the speed and for the young guys,” he said.) In a different setting, he might introduce you to Ferguson, an irascible Scot who calls Stillitano “good people” and “lovable” in two of his books. The Italian manager Carlo Ancelotti wrote in his 2010 book about the time Stillitano brokered a meeting between him and the Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich in 2008, resulting in Ancelotti’s hiring as the Blues’ coach.

He knows all of these men because, on behalf of some company or another, Stillitano has been persuading top European managers and the biggest European teams to spend their preseasons in the United States for the past 15 years.

His first company, ChampionsWorld, was financed with a mortgage on his house and began with a single friendly, between Real Madrid and Roma in 2002, that surprised even Stillitano by drawing 70,000 fans. (That he began with an Italian club was not accidental; Stillitano is the son of an immigrant, and he eagerly and effortlessly shifted between English and Italian with his guests at the Juventus game.) The company put on matches for four years but filed for bankruptcy in 2005, owing creditors more than $2 million. Its biggest outstanding creditor was the United States Soccer Federation, to which ChampionsWorld had to pay sanctioning fees for each match it ran.

ChampionsWorld sued, arguing that U.S. Soccer and Major League Soccer — which once employed Stillitano as the general manager of its New Jersey team, the MetroStars — had conspired to drive the company out of business. After a seven-year legal battle in which ChampionsWorld lost at both the Court of Arbitration for Sport and in federal court, the sides settled out of court.

“When I went bankrupt there were a lot of people kicking me when I was down,” Stillitano said. “I couldn’t get a job as a dishwasher in soccer.” He found refuge at Creative Artists Agency, just as it was making a large push into sports, and founded the World Football Challenge.

Two important things happened with the World Football Challenge. Inter Milan and Chelsea won almost every possible trophy the season after participating in the 2009 edition, and the Dolphins owner Stephen M. Ross saw a 2011 Chivas-Barcelona match in his new team’s stadium in Miami. That proved a preseason United States tour was rigorous preparation for the season, and the Miami match, which drew a crowd of about 70,000, persuaded Ross to hire Stillitano and an associate, Jon Sheiman, away from C.A.A. to create what would become the International Champions Cup.

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Charlie Stillitano with the former A.C. Milan and Italy defender Paolo Maldini, an ambassador for the I.C.C.Credit
Bryan Anselm for The New York Times

“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.

Original Article

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