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What is the future of the International Champions Cup?

CHICAGO — The advertisements had been running for months. Manchester City. Borussia Dortmund. Christian Pulisic. July 20. Soldier Field. From television screens to Facebook timelines, Chicagoans had been bombarded by promotion ever since International Champions Cup organizers had announced their 2018 slate.

It was the first of 17 stateside preseason matches under the ICC umbrella, and it had been propelled by the same marketing machine that turned the weeks-long event into a summer soccer fixture. What began as an eight-team, one-nation exhibition in 2013 has come to feature 18 teams and 27 games spread across nine countries, with a schedule reveal at Miami’s famed Liv nightclub and a who’s who of European soccer greats pimping the sixth edition.

The fifth, in 2017, felt like a watershed. Average attendance at U.S. matches held steady around 57,000 despite an expanded fixture list. TV ratings soared. The Miami Clasico drew 1.7 million viewers on ESPN platforms and a sellout crowd willing to pay several hundreds of dollars for tickets. Sponsors jumped aboard. Relevent Sports, the company behind the ICC, broke even for the first time.

Last summer’s success engendered the type of confidence that oozed out of Relevent execs hours before 2018 liftoff. Sitting around a corner table at a downtown Chicago pizzeria, they spoke of growth and momentum; of challenges met and perceptions changing. Stories of interactions with soccer royalty flowed. Humor flew. At the suggestion the 2018 ICC field constituted a preseason monopoly on Europe’s top clubs, executive chairman Charlie Stillitano smiled and offered a correction: “We like to say a ‘dominant position.’”

But that night, he stood inside the center circle as a half-capacity crowd began to file into Soldier Field around him. Then he watched as Pep Guardiola trotted out a starting 11 of academy kids unknown to the vast majority of American spectators. Groans from traveling British journalists were more frequent than goalscoring opportunities during a 1-0 Dortmund win.

The opener was a sign of things to come. With the tournament almost complete, average U.S. attendance is way down year over year. TV numbers have plunged. And questions linger: Is the reduced interest a World Cup-year aberration? Or an ominous trend?

More to the point: What, exactly, is the future of the ICC?

The ICC’s credibility battle

The metaphor of choice for Relevent CEO Danny Sillman is an uphill trek. That’s how he describes the Stillitano-led construction of the ICC – the two decades of trust-building, relationship-cementing, convention-bucking and learning that laid the foundation for what the event has become.

And what it has become is remarkable. Its 2018 lineup features the last 28 Champions League finalists and every legitimate 2019 contender. Participation was once reluctant. Skepticism once reigned. Now spots are coveted, so much so that some non-superclubs offer to play for free. Club demand is endless, because consumer demand is ravenous. Soccer-loving psychos travel hundreds of miles to see megastars and megateams in the flesh.

The key unknown has been why. Why do Americans spend days and significant money on preseason games? Do they come for the soccer? For the results-oriented competition? Or for the experience? For the chance to touch a team to which they have developed emotional connections from afar?

The novelty is crucial. For a Liverpool fan from Detroit, Saturday’s meeting with Manchester United in Ann Arbor felt like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But the pressing question, and perhaps the concern, is: What happens when once-in-a-lifetime becomes twice-in-a-lifetime, or thrice, and so on? Man United had played at Michigan Stadium four years earlier, and the Red Devil-supporting turnout this time around was noticeably thinner. That same year, Liverpool packed stadiums in New York and Charlotte; its return trips four summers later attracted less fanfare. Is the novelty wearing off?

That’s one diagnosis. Another is that increasingly knowledgeable American fans simply realized clubs would be without vacationing World Cup stars. That’s the theory Relevent subscribes to. The declines – 10,000-plus per game in U.S. attendance, 37 percent in average TV viewership for stateside games on ESPN or ESPN2* – weren’t unexpected. Executives say they’re actually encouraged.

Xherdan Shaqiri’s bicycle kick for Liverpool against Manchester United might have been the best moment of the 2018 International Champions Cup. (Getty)

Whatever the explanation, though, 2018 has shed light on the limits of the ICC’s current product.

The product, therefore, must improve.

Its fundamental flaw is that the games, at their core, don’t matter. Or at least their outcomes don’t. They’re exhibitions. Glorified training sessions. Organizers promote them as a tournament, and argue that for elite athletes, so-called “friendlies” are non-existent. But neither clubs nor managers nor players care about winning the ICC trophy. The matches matter as preparation for other competitions. When preparation entails rest or experimentation, though, the ICC suffers.

A diminished squad was Jose Mourinho’s primary lament in his extraordinary postgame rant Saturday. And it’s why he said of the 101,254 at the Big House: “If I was them, I wouldn’t come. I wouldn’t spend my money.”

The ICC’s potential is capped by its place on club priority lists. Its ceiling is its importance. The only way to blast through the ceiling is to obliterate the perception that games are meaningless. That’s the next stage of the uphill climb.

“It takes time to build credibility, both with the fans and the coaches and players,” Sillman says. “We look at properties like the X Games or the Skins Game. There’s lots of events that have built their own credibility over the years, starting from nowhere. Charlie and [Relevent founder and owner] Steve Ross have done an amazing job of trekking up that hill, of building credibility, that these are not friendlies, this is a real tournament.”

Why ICC games don’t matter

How do you inject a sporting event with meaning?

It’s a question worth pondering, because it’s what Relevent is trying to do. As Stillitano and co. have found, tradition inevitably produces headwinds and pushback.

But what ultimately drives fan interest is player interest. What determines and enables player interest – employee interest – is employer interest. And more than anything else, what determines employer interest – club interest – is money.

Money, ironically, is the ICC’s biggest obstacle. Clubs make fortunes winning in their domestic leagues and the Champions League. Wins reel in direct financial rewards – revenue shares – and indirect ones – fans, whose interest can be monetized.

Economic incentives call for an uncompromising pursuit of European success. Rather than offer an alternative, the ICC actually furthers that aim. European success and global brand power earn ICC invites. Relevent pays clubs seven- or eight-figure fees simply to show up. Real Madrid’s ICC income hinges not on its ICC success, but rather on its status as Champions League king. Until that changes, preparation will remain the sole preseason objective. Results will remain all but irrelevant. That’s what the money dictates.

Real Madrid has won four of the last five Champions League titles. Because it has, it’s one of the two richest clubs in the world. (Getty)

Stillitano says there has been talk of performance-based bonuses. They would help. Try to include them in future contracts, though, and Relevent runs into another barrier: staggered timelines. The Bundesliga season begins on Aug. 24. La Liga starts on the 17th. The Premier League kicks off on the 10th. Some teams are well ahead of others when they arrive in the U.S. or Asia. Introducing monetary incentives would either disrupt preseason rhythms or simply be unfair. World Cups, and the delayed offseason breaks that stem from them, exacerbate the dilemma.

In this sense, the ICC is at the mercy of FIFA, UEFA and the European leagues. It must operate in windows naturally carved by official competitions. It can (and did) go to a single table and standardized three-game schedules. It could try (and is considering) a group-to-knockout format, perhaps with semifinals and finals during winter breaks.

It also can (and does) implement clauses and penalties for teams that rest healthy stars. But it can’t mandate that they play. It can’t force players to cut short contractual, mandatory vacations. Doing so would jeopardize relationships with clubs and ruin Relevent’s accommodate-at-all-costs reputation. Stillitano tried all he could to get Cristiano Ronaldo to join Juventus for its upcoming matchup with Real Madrid. But he could only push so hard. Logistical hurdles were insurmountable.

The ICC’s early success certainly contains lessons. Lessons that pertain to the future of club soccer. The “big vs. big” template works. It’s why the ICC can sell TV rights in 170 countries. It’s why commercial and broadcast revenue now constitute sizable chunks of Relevent’s total take. Superclubs occupy an increasingly large proportion of global soccer fandom and increasingly powerful pull. The idea that the ICC is a harbinger of a breakaway European superleague isn’t far-fetched.

But the ICC is also wedging its way into an already overcrowded marketplace. “Mr. Ross has always wanted to own the preseason,” Stillitano says. In many ways, Relevent already does. Anything outside of those boundaries, as Stillitano says, “is just out of our hands.”

So what is the future of the ICC and Relevent?

Relevent, meanwhile, is evolving and expanding as a company. This year it launched a youth tournament modeled after the Little League World Series and an intriguing women’s tournament, which it hopes to grow to 16 teams as soon as next year. In May, it acquired Alianza de Futbol and other Hispanic properties. It now holds skills challenges and celebrity matches and cultural events.

Behind the scenes, 10 months ago, it had 18 full-time employees. Now it has 80, in locales such as Geneva and Singapore. It will soon announce major partnerships in multiple fields.

“We were just the International Champions Cup last July,” says Sillman, a sharp 29-year-old who came aboard in 2017. “One year later we’re an entirely new business that has an entire events and entertainment group. We’re now representing other brands to help them with live event production, operations, marketing, content. … We’ve made it the mission and vision to grow Relevent into an international media and entertainment company.”

What does all that mean for the ICC? Likely that the next transformation will be of the experience, not the matches themselves. Last summer’s Miami Clasico, with hype and concerts surrounding it, provided a blueprint, albeit an exceptional one. American fans might realize exhibition soccer isn’t worth three-figure sums. But perhaps exhibition soccer plus the pre- and post-game atmosphere plus Super Bowl-esque adjacent programming is. Relevent can offer all that.

Real Madrid and Barcelona played in Miami as part of the 2017 International Champions Cup. (Getty)

It can also offer more to clubs. “We can enhance,” Stillitano says, “In fact, we’re starting a whole new department, Relevent Plus, which does activation for the teams and their sponsors.”

Says Sillman: ”The future of our business is predicated on our ability to not only provide great live production of the events, but also our ability to help them from a marketing standpoint. The marketing departments really look to us as a regional partner, to help them navigate dealing with brands in the States, dealing with any corporate opportunities, both for themselves and for their players.”

That might not change the tournament itself. But it will position Relevent for the future. Many of its recent moves are long-term plays.

To that end, Sillman hails Ross’ vision as empowering. “He’s reinvested every penny,” Sillman says of the Miami Dolphins owner. “He’s made a significant investment over the past five years. And we’re really fortunate to have him vs. private-equity-owned, where investors need a return on their investment right away. We have a founder/investor that has a long-term view.”

So even if the ICC can’t win the perception battle – even if it can’t solve the incentive dilemma – Relevent is building an empire around it. The ICC, as ambitious as ever, could go in any number of different directions. Its fate may very well depend on the empire’s rise or fall.

*Attendance numbers are accurate through Tuesday’s games. The 12-game 2017 average was 56,950; the 14-game 2018 average so far is 43,084. Taking only the top 10 games, the 2017 average was 62,418; the 2018 average is 52,220. TV ratings, via ShowBuzzDaily, are accurate through Saturday’s games. Removing the Barcelona-Real Madrid matchup from last year year’s numbers and Liverpool-Manchester United from this years, average viewership is still down 25%.

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.