Relevent appeals court win raises spectre of LaLiga staging league matches in US again

By Paul Nicholson

March 10 – Relevent Sports Group’s ambition to stage LaLiga regular season games in the US has been given a lifeline after a US federal appeals court ruled they could go to court with their antitrust lawsuit against FIFA and the US Soccer Federation (USSF).

The appeals court overturned a lower-court ruling that had thrown out the case.

The dispute between Relevent and US Soccer arose after Relevent, via their 15-year agreement with LaLiga signed in 2018, proposed staging a regular season match between Barcelona and Girona in Miami.

US Soccer with the backing of FIFA and a global outcry from football stakeholders, refused to sanction the match and in 2019 Relevent filed suit claiming that the USSF illegally conspired with FIFA to prevent foreign clubs and leagues from holding competitive matches in the US.

“This boycott has deprived fans of international soccer in the US of the opportunity to attend Official Season International Soccer Game Events in the US and is a blatant anti-trust violation,” the filing in US District Court in New York said.

This was the second lawsuit Relevent had filed against the USSF in New York State Court claiming it is threatening Relevent’s soccer promotion business and has a conflict of interest in sanctioning professional matches.

Relevent had wanted to stage an Ecuadorean first-division match between Barcelona S.C. and Guayaquil City, on May 5 in Miami, for which it had written approval for the match from both Ecuador’s soccer federation and Conmebol (approvals it did not have from the Spanish federation or UEFA for the proposed Barcelona vs Girona league fixture). US Soccer refused to sanction that match ostensibly over concerns around whether Relevent’s match agent Charlie Stillitano (also the company’s chairman) was a properly registered match agent.

In 2021, US District Court judge Valerie Caproni dismissed Relevent’s case saying that Relevent had not proved that there was an illegal conspiracy between FIFA and US Soccer to restrict where teams play.

The three-judge appeals panel took a different view stating that Relevent had enough evidence to “plausibly allege” that FIFA’s policy unlawfully restricted competition.

“These allegations, corroborated by the fact that the 2018 policy does not on its face relate to ‘things like how many players may be on the field or the time allotted for play,’ but rather relates to a geographic limitation on where various leagues can compete for ticket sales, plausibly allege that in adopting the 2018 policy, FIFA and its member associations adopted an anticompetitive geographic market division,” said the appeals court judges in their written ruling.

“Contrary to the district court’s conclusion, there is no need for Relevent to allege a prior ‘agreement to agree’ or conspiracy to adopt the policy; the adoption of the policy, combined with the member leagues’ prior agreement, by joining FIFA, to adhere to its policies, constitutes an agreement on the part of all — whether they voted in favor of the policy or not — to adhere to the announced restriction on competition.”

The case can now go back to the District Court for trial and reopens what has been one of the most controversial issues in league football worldwide of playing domestic games in foreign territories for financial gain.

The US frequently hosts friendly games including in the past Relevent’s own, but now defunct, International Champions Cup tournament. Relevant have even staged an El Clasico ‘friendly’ in Miami, in 2017. But taking regular season matches from another country into the US market that has its own domestic leagues and teams that it is trying to build, is another thing altogether.

Relevent chief executive, Daniel Sillman, said: “Today’s ruling is an important victory for both American soccer and the global growth of the game. By paving the way for the best teams and players from football clubs around the world to compete in competitive matches in the United States, more fans will have the chance to witness the sport being played at its highest level and directly experience all that it has to offer.”

The counter argument for the growth of football in the US is what benefit or contribution would such a fixture make to the commercial and fanbase development of the game in the US. Probably very little with the revenues disappearing to Relevent and LaLiga and leaving the dubious legacy of waiting for the next fixture from the Spanish league to be scheduled.

The US and its vast resources and commercial opportunity welcome FIFA and its World Cup in 2026. Concacaf and the three joint hosts – the US, Canada and Mexico – have been using this to promote the game throughout their member federations. Having LaLiga and its promoter sucking money and fandom out of its home market to take home and feed their clubs and investors very much goes against LaLiga bosses so often calls for football solidarity in the face of extreme greed.

Contact the writer of this story at moc.l1680333203labto1680333203ofdlr1680333203owedi1680333203sni@n1680333203osloh1680333203cin.l1680333203uap1680333203