Charlie Stillitano on how to organise a pre-season soccer tournament

Organised by New York-based Relevent Sports, a division of RSE Ventures, the Guinness International Champions Cup is set to welcome a host of top European soccer clubs to the US this summer as each continues their pre-season preparations. The games themselves may be termed friendlies but, as Relevent Sports chief executive Charlie Stillitano explains, the tournament is now far more than a summer kick-around.

Charlie Stillitano on how to organise a pre-season soccer tournament

Spanish giants Real Madrid and MLS side Los Angeles Galaxy prepare to face off in last year's tournament, then known as the Herbalife World Football Challenge.

Organised by New York-based Relevent Sports, a division of RSE Ventures, the Guinness International Champions Cup - formerly known as the Herbalife World Football Challenge - has grown into one of the best known pre-season soccer tournaments in the world.

Reigning Major League Soccer champions LA Galaxy and seven teams from Europe – the Premier League’s Chelsea and Everton, the Serie A trio of AC Milan, Inter Milan and Juventus, and La Liga giants Real Madrid and Valencia – comprise a stellar line-up due to take part in this year’s event, which will be staged in major venues across five US cities after an opening game in the Spanish city of Valencia.

Ahead of the start of this year’s tournament, which kicks off in Valencia on Saturday, Relevent Sports chief executive Charlie Stillitano outlines why the Guinness International Champions Cup is now far more than a summer kick-around.

What kind of work goes into putting together a tournament like this?

Not only are we working on the normal logistics and the marketing for this year, so everything from merchandising and licensing to coordinating with the teams, negotiating all the contracts with stadia, negotiating all the training sites, preparing all the logistics, but at the same time we’re actually contracting with teams for next year. Some of these teams will come back but some we’ll replace with other teams to keep it fresh, and so we’ll already starting to organise for next year. Although the business is very lumpy in the sense that it’s only a few times a year that you actually can bring the teams out here, it is clearly a full-time job.

What is the public and corporate interest in the International Champions Cup like?

It’s truly become an event, and that’s why our tagline this year is ‘No friendlies, just football’. We’re trying to make this a real event, one that the teams are proud to play in and where there’s real competition. Obviously we understand that it’s not the Premier League or the Champions League, but we’re trying to get it to be the most prestigious pre-season tournament that people really feel it’s great preparation, the sponsors are extraordinarily happy and we have people interested in it, to see these teams compete at this level.

Pre-season tours and tournaments like yours are now big business as European clubs seek to capitalise commercially on their global fan bases. How has the increasing scope of summer tours influenced your company's role and the clubs’ demands when they visit the US?

We’ve seen it evolve over time where the tournaments were really just focused on ticket sales; now they’ve become much more of a brand building exercise for the teams. The teams are more demanding in everything. I remember the 1994 World Cup, Italy stayed at a very modest hotel. I couldn’t imagine any of the teams staying at a hotel of this quality now. Not that it was bad but it was very modest. They used to look for just quiet seclusion and comfort and now the demands have changed significantly. Now everyone wants to be at a five-star luxury hotel, to have absolute perfect training facilities. Usually we’ve been utilising the NFL facilities for the most part here and trying to make it as comfortable as we can and productive for the teams during their pre-season.

It used to be that teams would come simply to make a few bucks and maybe it didn’t really matter from a marketing viewpoint – they wouldn’t really put a lot into it. Now you realise marketing has become most important for clubs to generate revenue. We’ve had to build our organisation around that and to that level. Before you were basically just a match organiser now you’re really a marketing team.

How important is the US market in particular for European clubs?

I think for the English clubs in particular, with the common language that we have and so many multinationals that go across both platforms, it’s very, very important. It would be hard to underestimate how important it is, and I think that part of it is capturing the hearts and minds and part of it is capturing the sponsor’s dollars or the TV dollars. Look at Manchester United’s biggest sponsors: Nike, Aon and Chevrolet. These are three enormous multinationals that are headquartered in the US. But it’s not just them. Look at Juventus, their parent company owns Chrysler. Who would ever think that, that an Italian club would have roots in the US like that?

"It’s truly become an event, and that’s why our tagline this year is ‘No friendlies, just football’."

In what ways does the pre-season environment in the US compare to Asia?

It’s a very, very different atmosphere than Asia. When they come on tour over here we have an open training session; they’re much more relaxed. The players aren’t sequestered, they can walk around town. I saw pictures of David Beckham in China and hundreds of people around him. People were knocking each other to get close to him. They won’t find that in the US, so it’s a very different atmosphere. Suddenly you’re sitting there and people are walking next to you or sitting next to you in a restaurant and there really is that feeling of the players are relaxed, there’s a great training environment, and you can top it off by playing great games.

I think the turning point of that was in 2009, because we had Inter Milan with Jose [Mourinho], we had Chelsea with Carlo Ancelotti, we had AC Milan with Leonardo at the time, and of those teams, Chelsea won the double and Inter won the treble. Suddenly people are saying ‘wait a minute, how bad a training environment can it be? They’ve won five major trophies between them.’ That really helped us because we were saying for years that the Championship winners were almost always coming out of our pot. People would say ‘yeah, but that’s an aberration because there’s only one big team or whatever’. But it’s not. If you can get that part right the managers are happy and then for the marketing people, it’s a dream.

How does the tournament benefit teams and the profile of soccer in the US? Is it a problem that MLS is in season?

The reason that we felt we needed to make the tournament a real property is because we do have a professional league here that is doing very well. When we partnered with MLS a couple years ago, we had a situation where it was in MLS’s interest they wanted as many teams to play these European teams as possible. What we found was it was great and it was fun but it diluted the competitive nature of the tournament. MLS was in season, they had teams that wouldn’t play all their players because they had a game coming up and so on, so what we said was ‘look, if you can give us your champions for ten days, and take a break, would they compete with some of the best teams in the world?’ And they did that. So now we’re including MLS but it’s in a very competitive environment. So when the LA Galaxy open up against Real Madrid it’s no longer an exhibition just to see Cristiano Ronaldo; now the LA Galaxy is going to compete and they’re going to play the winner of Everton-Juventus. They don’t want to be embarrassed. They’re in mid-season form, they’re champions of MLS, and so we’ve made it very competitive on both ends.

Fox is in the midst of a multi-year deal to broadcast the event in the US. In what ways are they helping to build the event’s profile?

What they’re doing is promoting it, a tremendous amount of promotion, but there is also a rights fee involved and at least one of the games is going to be on the regular Fox broadcasts, so it’ll be on in 130 million homes. Think about that. If I was going to tell you that there was a pre-season soccer game on regular Fox, you would be like ‘get out of here, you’re an idiot Charlie!’ But that’s where it’s gone to now. It’s really changed. The other thing we’ve benefited from in the States is that there is real competition now for football. So NBC jumped in now, obviously ESPN has always been a player, and Fox has been a player, and now that increased competition bodes well for our tournament. We built the tournament with Fox and that was one of the prerequisites, that it was a tournament that people could understand. So it’s a multi-year deal and we’re already talking next year of increasing the number of teams that are going to be on. Fox is launching Fox Sports 1, which will be in 100 million homes, and so the tournament next year will be on Fox Sports 1 and ‘big Fox’, if you will. And so we are already planning for that.

Stillitano was speaking to SportsPro in June as part of a special report into the economics of pre-season soccer, which appeared in the August 2013 edition of the magazine. To find out how you can subscribe today, click here.