Relevent Sports’ Ross ‘lobbies top European clubs and Uefa’ to create more competitive ICC

Stephen Ross (by Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images)

Stephen Ross the billionaire owner of Relevent Sports, the sports promotion company behind the International Champions Cup (ICC), is reported to have met with the leading European football clubs and Uefa to discuss adding a more competitive element to the summer soccer tournament.

Ross, who is also the principle owner of the Miami Dolphins, has invested millions into the ICC but it has so far failed to generate significant sponsorship and media revenues with pre-season competition often hit by the withdrawal of star players.

The tournament has proven more lucrative for the clubs who receive substantial participation fees and coordinate match appearances with fan outreach efforts.

Ross flew to Paris this month to meet with officials from major clubs like Manchester United, Liverpool, Juventus and Paris St-Germain, and demanded that more competitive tension be introduced into the event or he could withdraw his financial support, The New York Times reports.

The Relevent owner is also reported to have met with Uefa officials to discuss adding the governing body’s imprimatur to the event to give it a greater sense of importance.

Off the back of the meetings, reports indicate the clubs have now agreed to set up a working group with Relevent to study if a more competitive event is feasible in the cluttered football calendar.

The competition underwent a switch of media rights distributor in 2019 as the IMG agency took on the role in a two-year agreement (excluding US, Mexico and Central America). The rights had been sold by Hong Kong-based Catalyst Media Group, Relevent’s sister company, since the competition’s inception in 2013. Catalyst had also sold sponsorship rights to the tournament.

Claims that Relevent could also be the architect of proposals to create a breakaway European Super League have persisted ever since the company’s executive chairman Charlie Stillitano was pictured leaving a secret meeting with the English Premier League’s ‘big five’ clubs at London’s Dorchester Hotel in 2016.

In an interview with SportBusiness the same year, Stillitano denied Relevent had any designs on such project. He also said Ross had never considered seeking Uefa’s backing for the ICC.

Stillitano said at the time: “Mr Ross never thought about that [seeking Uefa’s backing] and he never suggested that was something we should do. It’s not something that we feel we need. We just want to create a great global tournament.”

The summer months appear to have become a new battleground in an increasingly acrimonious race between Uefa and Fifa to shape the future of club football. Fifa has courted the leading European clubs by offering them a share of the riches offered by revamping the Club World Cup and moving it to the summer months from 2021 onwards.

The commercial attraction of summer fixtures is there is no clash with domestic competitions meaning organisers can schedule matches in more lucrative prime-time weekend slots. Uefa and its commercial agent Team Marketing’s commercialisation of the Champions League during the regular season is hamstrung by the fact that matches must be played on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, so they have limited ability to rejig kick-off times to reach international audiences and boost the value of their international media rights.

However, any plan to schedule more competitive fixtures in what is supposed to be a rest period for footballers will likely attract criticism from player unions.

In March last year, Uefa, the European Club Association (ECA) and European Leagues asserted their joint opposition to Fifa’s Club World Cup changes. The bodies argued that any potential new competitions should only be introduced as part of an agreed framework for the international match calendar post-2024.

The revamped Club World Cup is already thought to have played a role in the rescheduling of next year’s Africa Cup of Nations to January and February next year. The move has proved unpopular with European clubs who will stand to lose their African players for the duration of the tournament.

Relevent has also fallen victim to the cluttered international calendar, announcing plans to schedule a reduced format ICC event this year due to the presence of an expanded 24-team European Championship and the 12-team Copa America.

In 2018, it emerged that Uefa and Team Marketing approached Europe’s clubs ahead of the 2018-2021 cycle with an idea to expand the Champions League into the summer months, arguing that they could earn the big clubs twice as much as they get paid to play in the ICC.

Uefa is also thought to be examining proposals to add more Champions League games from 2024 onwards during the regular football season, but postponed talks with clubs after early plans for reform met with opposition.

La Liga president Javier Tebas has said the proposals would damage domestic competitions. Having initially opposed Fifa’s revamped Club World Cup, he then came out in support, arguing that the commitment to play the event every four years after the regular season ends meant it was in the interest of leagues to support it.

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