Party in the USA: How the new International Champions Cup plans to grow women’s soccer

Charlie Stillitano, executive chairman of International Champions Cup (ICC) organisers Relevent Sports, discusses the new women’s event and the path ahead for the women’s game.

Party in the USA: How the new International Champions Cup plans to grow women’s soccer

Steph Houghton of Manchester City Women in action during the Uefa Women's Champions League semi final

The International Champions Cup (ICC) has established itself as the most high-profile summer soccer exhibition tournament in the world, giving the European giants access to new markets in a globe-trotting format. Now it is breaking new ground again.

Formed in 2013 by RSE Ventures – the investment vehicle co-founded by billionaire Stephen Ross, owner of the National Football League’s (NFL) Miami Dolphins, alongside the franchise’s chairman Matthew Higgins, and Relevent Sports supremo Charlie Stillitano – the preseason tournament that has delivered stunning levels of fan engagement.

The 2014 edition saw a showdown between English Premier League giants Manchester United and La Liga’s Real Madrid at Michigan Stadium bring the largest ever attendance for soccer match in the United States – 109,000. Last year Miami hosted the first Real v Barcelona Clasico held outside Spain in over 30 years. The game was preceded by a “Super Bowl experience”, presented to fans as a week-long festival and was the most popular soccer ticket of the season, according to resale site StubHub.

Now in its sixth iteration, the event has expanded again. In April, Relevent Sports announced the introduction of a women’s International Champions Cup competition to run alongside the men’s tournament in Miami. The event will feature English Women’s Super League (WSL) clubs Manchester City and Chelsea, French Division 1 Féminine outfit Paris Saint-Germain and US National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) side North Carolina Courage, with matches set to be staged at the Dolphins’ Hard Rock Stadium.

With the huge growth of participation and reach of women’s soccer, Stillitano sees the introduction of a women’s competition as an opportunity to capture the preseason niche and showcase the best women’s players in the world, using a festival atmosphere to take the sport to new levels.

What were the factors behind your decision to launch the women’s Champions Cup event?

It’s the opposite side of the coin from the men’s ICC, in that we look to Europe for the best and brightest football on the men’s side. The US, it’s fair to say, has been a worldwide leader in women’s soccer. We thought how cool would it be to have American women’s teams against British teams, Italian teams, German teams. We think it would be a nice marriage between the two events.

This year in Miami we’re going to have the women’s tournament smack in the middle of the men’s tournament.

Obviously it’s a small iteration to start off, with four teams. But we’ve had at least eight other teams express interest in Europe saying they wanted to be invited. It’s really to capitalise on the growth of women’s football here in the US, and the growth of women’s football worldwide. I’m a dad with two daughters and I understand how important it is for women to have a voice. It’s especially important in a traditionally male-dominated sport that we’re bringing in a bit of 21st century attitude to the game.

Irene Paredes celebrates her goal with Rozeira Cristiane of Paris Saint-Germain during the Women's Champions League match against Barcelona 

What do you see the event bringing to women’s soccer?

I see it showcasing the women’s game to new markets. One thing the women’s game has done is bring so many younger players in. The more top-level footballers you expose to the younger generation here, the better it is for inspiring and encouraging others to follow or partake. That’ll bring over new fans too because they hear Chelsea, Arsenal, PSG, and they see how good these women are, and I think it raises the level of the game here.

You’ve brought festival-like elements to the men’s ICC. Is that something you want to bring into the women’s game?

We basically built a whole week long activity around El Clasico last year in Miami. We’re going to do a similar thing here with the launch of House of Soccer.

Some of the female footballers are celebrities in their own right now, and many people look up to them.

I’m a big believer in the power of sports as a vehicle to help kids mature and grow up. I think there are not enough role models for women out there in sport and so that’s the main focus. It’s not about money at the moment, it’s about growing the game. 

So House of Soccer will have not only games for kids but also competitive games for young girls too.

How do you schedule it around seasons— do you have calendar clashes?

Having seen the reaction from the European and US teams, we think next year we are going to have 16 teams and we’re going to do it where it works for the schedule. The schedule is our biggest challenge every year.

I don’t see the tournament replacing European competitions. We know that we are a summer tournament and not the Champions League, but I think its credibility is great.

Because women’s soccer doesn’t have those established platforms, this is a real opportunity to create a tournament that is truly important and global in nature.

People are saying this is a great commercial opportunity because you’re at the forefront of a movement growing women’s sport, but anyone who knows the growth of women’s soccer right now knows it’s a challenge to make it a profitable endeavour at the moment, and it will take years of hard work.

Crowds pile in to watch a men's International Champions Cup event in Singapore

Do you plan on bringing the event outside of the US as with the men’s tournament?

One hundred per cent. Because of the huge interest we have, we will definitely mirror the men’s tournament.

To speculate some more, it would probably be in the US only next year when we expand it. But we’re keeping our options open.

Will you be commercialising it alongside the men’s tournament, and what sponsorship opportunities to you see?

We’re going to mirror the men’s event in every sense and we’re trying to get a real TV contract in place, and we’re working on that. We think that there are an incredible amount of opportunities on the sponsor side in the women’s market. But we’re not going to be charging high ticket prices or anything, we want to drive the fans into the stadium to see these women play.

Do you see the women’s event diverging from the men’s event in the future and being packaged differently?

I think in the short term, it’s good to package it with the men, that helps the women’s game grow right now but that will change.

We’re absolutely looking to make this a standalone event. I couldn’t say when we would schedule it.

We have 22 games across continents and different cities, to have another women’s tournament at the exact same time would be logistically a challenge so we would possibly look to separate the two next year.

How would you like to see the event in five years’ time?

I would want it to look very similar to the way the men’s event looks now. The other good thing is, because the women’s game is so developed in the Western world, for me it would be great as we expand to find other opportunities. Much of the men’s game has seen more of a commercial focus in China and the US. But with the women’s teams, we have the opportunity to do things with more of a social conscience.

Why wouldn’t we do it in countries like Africa, where it would be great for women to have that opportunity to play? I could see it developing differently to the men’s game in that regard geographically. I do see it becoming as big as the men’s tournament in its own space.