Dolphins Owner Stephen Ross Is Going All-In Bringing European Soccer to the States

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In the beginning, Dolphins owner Stephen Ross just wanted to fill seats. So, his first reaction to seeing 70,000 fans stuff his stadium for a Wednesday night exhibition soccer match between Chivas and FC Barcelona in 2011 was: “Maybe there’s something here.” Nevermind that Ross would need help identifying Leo Messi on the pitch, that he would have struggled to describe El Clasico or that he still has to catch himself from calling the sport’s biggest rivalry The Clasico. This former tax attorney from Michigan was going to help make soccer in America happen.

Fast forward seven years. Currently, 18 of soccer’s biggest clubs—Real Madrid and FC Barcelona, Manchester City and Man United, Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus among them—are barnstorming through the U.S. and around the globe, competing in the world’s biggest preseason tournament, Ross’s International Champions Cup. ESPN will televise 28 of the matches. A million fans will attend the games.

To get to this point, Ross’s first move was hiring the two men who had organized the Chivas-Barcelona match, Charlie Stillitano and Jon Sheiman, to lead his new soccer division. His second move, on their second day in the New York office, was to gather the group on his private plane and fly to Los Angeles for a brainstorming meeting with Fox Sports president Eric Shanks. “Basically we were making the sausage right in front of him,” Stillitano said. “[Ross] said, ‘I want a tournament—a global tournament—and I want to own the space.’ It was extraordinary because he didn’t have 20 years of pushing a boulder up a hill.”

When Ross said ‘tournament,’ what he had in mind was March Madness or the NFL playoffs. But Stillitano had to tell him that format wouldn’t work. The world’s best teams would only show up if they had assurances on who, when, and where they’d be playing the preseason matches that managers use to prepare for each season, often giving stars rest and younger players an opportunity to break out. Ross’s acceptance of that played out over the next three years. In 2013, the inaugural tournament boasted single-elimination competition with a loser’s bracket. In 2014, there were two groups and one champion-crowning final. In 2015 (through this year), the winner has simply been the team with the best record after a string of pre-planned matches, and executives say that format is expected to stay largely the same going forward.

Each year during this process, the ICC’s attendance numbers have gone up, and Ross got to prove Stillitano wrong a few times, too. Like in 2014, when Ross proposed holding a match in Ann Arbor’s Michigan Stadium. “I said, ‘Boss, I know a sleepy college town when I see it. Boss, we’re not going to get 110,000 people to go to Michigan for a match.’” Ultimately, 109,318 showed up, a U.S. record.

Ross faced similar doubts when he aimed to pit Real Madrid and Barcelona FC against each other in Miami. Without an old-school tournament format to gin up competitive juices, organizers saw rivalries as a natural way to make the exhibitions more exciting, and naturally Ross wanted to land the biggest. The only problem was the two sides hadn’t agreed to a match outside of Spain since 1982, when they faced off in Venezuela. As Stillitano remembers, there was plenty of backlash to the idea within both organizations—This is our jewel, the sentiment went, not something that should be exported. This is for our people. Ross traveled to Spain anyway and laid out the offer. We are going to run this like a Super Bowl, he told the respective team leaders. Trust me. We’re presenting a good deal, it’s gonna be great, you guys are going to say yes. “It was so classically American,” Stillitano said. “And to my amazement, both sides said, ‘O.K., Mr. Ross, you got it.”

At the game last July, the respective club vice presidents were surprised to learn how much the ICC was charging for tickets (from $200 into the $1000s), before joking midway through Barcelona’s 3-2 win, “We should have charged more!” Ross said the event ended up posting record-breaking revenue. It also represented a bit of a pivot for his soccer business.

In treating El Clasico like the Super Bowl, the ICC built up days of event programming around the match, featuring concerts, games, food and the like. “It helped us to really understand the magnitude of the type of event we are putting on,” says Daniel Sillman, CEO of Relevent, which runs the ICC. “We’re in the live entertainment and hospitality business, not just the soccer business.”

It’s helpful here to rewind back to the beginning. The original idea behind the ICC was simple: Americans will only really care about the best. Soccer is the biggest sport in this country in which the national champion isn’t ipso facto the world’s best team, so why not bring the best here? But the biggest challenge was also evident from day one: Americans will only really care about games that matter. Ross’s initial solve for that was to make them matter by making it a tournament. Then he moved to the idea of making them matter by harnessing the essential meaning inherent in historic rivalries. Now, a third idea: to move the focus away from the game and toward the experience.

American soccer fans, after all, have plenty of opportunities to watch matches. Even in years when the World Cup doesn’t dominate the sporting calendar for a month, La Liga, English Premier League, and Bundesliga schedules stretch from August to May, with other club and national matches filling in the gaps. But the ICC provides a rare chance to celebrate the sport and its leaders in-person—to make the U.S. the center of the soccer world, if only briefly. The ICC still sees a future in media distribution (its ESPN deal ends after this tournament), but execs say they are focused this summer on the House of Soccer parties held in Los Angeles and Miami, featuring past soccer stars, other athletes like Odell Beckham Jr., and entertainers like 2 Chainz. “I think there is an opportunity to make this a location-based entertainment business, with the sporting component in the middle but with a festival-type atmosphere around our matches,” Sillman said last year after being promoted to CEO. He now envisions a time when every ICC match is surrounded by related events.

In that world, the ICC would in many ways become a marketing activation for international soccer. Top clubs are no longer just the product on display; they are also now the customers. Rather than trying to pick off new fans from rival clubs in England, EPL clubs are increasingly going after overseas audiences, and the ICC is here to help them. In the longterm contracts they’ve agreed to with teams, the ICC still demands that managers put their best players on the field for a certain amount of time. But beyond that, the teams get a say in which markets they play in. Chelsea (which just this week launched a U.S.-focused Twitter handle) likes going to new places to build new fan relationships. Other clubs prefer to stay in the country’s biggest cities. And sometimes, the ICC does the research to make recommendations. “Like we say to Bayern Munich, ‘You should play in Charlotte,’” Sheiman said. “There are 180 German businesses in the Carolinas. We’ve had good success putting clubs in places they weren’t focused on right away.”

A soccer neophyte, Ross started this project because he saw American consumers’ hunger for the game. But over a half-decade in, with more than $100 million invested, he may have found a better business serving the game’s hunger for the American consumer. Satiating that yearning has meant expanding beyond the entire idea of a preseason series.

This year, the ICC launched a youth tournament and a women’s tournament alongside its main men’s event. A girl’s tournament and an expanded women’s field are on track for next year. All of those new creations serve the two-fold purpose of furthering European brands in the States and building enthusiasm for soccer among Americans. “It’s a natural evolution of what we’re doing,” Scheiman said. “We want to be full service.” The ICC has also grown internationally, primarily to perform a similar role for fans and clubs in Asia. For example, Singapore is hosting three games this summer. And Sillman would like to go even further, maintaining a year-round connection with American soccerheads through media and content deals, becoming the access point between domestic fans and the global game. It all contributes to what is now a sprawling ICC venture, born from the sight of a single empty stadium 30 minutes north of Miami.

Of course, there was a simpler way for Ross to position himself for a ride on the U.S. soccer wave. NFL owners Robert Kraft and Paul Allen both are invested in MLS teams, while fellow owners Stan Kroenke and Shad Khan have stakes in EPL clubs. But that’s not Ross’s way.

“I think that Mr. Ross is a true American, and what I mean by that is he likes the best and wants the best,” Stillitano said. “The other thing I’d say is, he loves to build things. He loves to be the guy that does it …. Mr. Ross is a guy that likes to think big and build things.”

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