In a sudden escalation of a long simmering feud, Relevent Sports filed a lawsuit against the United States Soccer Federation in New York State Court on Monday, claiming U.S. Soccer is jeopardizing Relevent’s soccer promotion business and has a conflict of interest in sanctioning professional matches.
The lawsuit adds to the legal woes for U.S. Soccer, which is facing at least three other lawsuits, including a gender discrimination claim filed by members of the United States women’s national team last month.
Relevent Sports is a promoter that brings high-profile European clubs to the United States each summer to play exhibition matches in football stadiums during its International Champions Cup tournament. This year’s edition will feature teams like Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Arsenal, but Monday’s lawsuit makes clear that the company has ambitions outside its usual summer window, ambitions that most likely made a conflict with U.S. Soccer inevitable.
Eager to expand beyond exhibition matches, Relevent has spent months trying to bring a competitive match to the United States, similar to how the N.F.L. and N.B.A. stage games abroad each season. Thwarted in its efforts to bring a Spanish league match to America in January, Relevent’s latest attempt is an Ecuadorean first-division match between Barcelona S.C. and Guayaquil City, scheduled for May 5 in Miami.
The sanctioning process for that match prompted the lawsuit. Relevent has written approval for the match from both Ecuador’s soccer federation and Conmebol, the governing body for soccer in South America, but according to the lawsuit, U.S. Soccer has refused to sanction the game.
U.S. Soccer declined to comment on the lawsuit. Relevent Sports confirmed that it had filed the lawsuit on Monday, but had no other comment.
As the national governing body for soccer in the United States, U.S. Soccer has the authority to sanction all professional soccer matches played in the country. It is also allowed to collect sanctioning fees, which can be quite lucrative. According to the lawsuit, in the last six years Relevent has paid U.S. Soccer approximately $19.5 million for the right to host its summer tournament and other matches.
But U.S. Soccer has chosen not to sanction the match featuring the Ecuadorean teams because it has questions about whether Relevent’s listed match agent — Charlie Stillitano, the chairman of Relevent Sports — is a properly certified and insured FIFA match agent, according to the lawsuit. Relevent says it presented U.S. Soccer with a copy of Stillitano’s insurance policy, and an email from FIFA confirming that his omission from its online database of registered match agents was a mistake.
As of Monday morning, Stillitano was listed in FIFA’s match agent database, which seems to have been last updated on Thursday.
U.S. Soccer’s refusal to sanction the match is about an issue much deeper than concerns about credentials, according to the lawsuit. Relevent contends the decision is part of a proxy fight between Relevent and the U.S. Soccer partner Soccer United Marketing (SUM).
SUM is the powerful, and profitable, marketing arm of Major League Soccer, the top professional league in the United States. But it also is a critical business partner to U.S. Soccer, paying the federation $30 million annually for its commercial rights, which include rights to most United States national team telecasts. SUM also represents the commercial interests of the Mexican national team within the United States, and is a marketing partner of Conmebol and Concacaf, the governing body for soccer in North America.
In essence, then, Relevent and SUM are the two biggest promoters of soccer games in America, and Relevent is accusing U.S. Soccer — by blocking its game but not any organized by SUM — of putting its thumb on the scale in favor of a partner.
Critics have raised questions about conflicts of interest between SUM, M.L.S. and U.S. Soccer for years. For example, Don Garber, the commissioner of M.L.S., is also the chief executive of SUM and a member of U.S. Soccer’s board of directors. U.S. Soccer’s president, Carlos Cordeiro, addressed those concerns directly while running for the post last year, telling Sports Illustrated in an interview that “the unique ownership of SUM creates conflicts that need to be addressed.”
The U.S. Soccer policy manual states that international matches should be sanctioned unless there is “clear and convincing evidence” that they would be “detrimental to the best interest of the sport.” Relevent argues in the lawsuit that American interest in soccer can’t possibly be diminished by hosting an Ecuadorean league match, and therefore U.S. Soccer must be placing “the economic interest of a select group of its members over its statutorily-mandated purpose.”
This is not the first time U.S. Soccer has been sued over its sanctioning policies. ChampionsWorld, a company owned by Stillitano that arranged international soccer matches in American stadiums in the early 2000s, sued the federation in 2006, claiming it was forced into bankruptcy by excessive sanctioning fees charged by U.S. Soccer. After a seven-year legal battle, the sides eventually reached a settlement.
It is also far from the only lawsuit U.S. Soccer is facing. Besides the gender discrimination suit involving the women’s national team and a similar case filed by the former goalkeeper Hope Solo, there is also an antitrust suit filed by the North American Soccer League and a trademark dispute with the United States Soccer Federation Foundation. There is also a claim in front of the Court of Arbitration for Sport asking U.S. Soccer to compel M.L.S. to institute a system of promotion and relegation.