International Champions Cup taking friendlies to new level
The competition is a global event with 17 top teams at venues which include Dublin
Over 100,000 fans attended Manchester United v Real Madrid at Michigan Stadium in 2016. Photograph: Leon Halip/Getty Images
Manchester United, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and 15 other heavyweight European teams. Twenty-seven matches staged in 22 venues – including the Aviva Stadium in Dublin – on three continents. Inaugural women and youth team tournaments. More than five million tickets sold and plans for a quantum leap in global sponsorship and TV coverage.
In six years the International Champions Cup has fulfilled the vision of Stephen M Ross, the multi-billionaire owner of the Miami Dolphins and Relevent Sports, the company behind the pre-season competition which begins on Friday when Manchester City face Borussia Dortmund in Chicago.
As Charlie Stillitano, Relevent’s chairman, says: “When we started with Steve Ross he wanted it to be a global tournament that captured all the pre-season games for the major teams, which was quite a lofty ambition. I was cautiously optimistic because he had the resources to put his money where his mouth is.”
The ICC’s genesis came as a replacement for the World Football Challenge, which began in 2009 and Stillitano believes that was a pivotal year.
“One turning point came then because a lot of managers felt: ‘Well, you do some pre-season stuff but not a full-blown tournament because you’re not going to win anything in the season proper.’ That was the myth,” he says.
“In 2009 we had Carlo Ancelotti’s Chelsea, José Mourinho’s Inter Milan. That season José won the treble [league, Champions League and Coppa Italia], Carlo won the double [league and FA Cup]: it dispelled that myth and that’s when it kind of changed.
“But to think where the ICC is now – 18 teams, 27 games, 22 different cities and three continents, I would never have imagined this six years ago.”
The inaugural competition was held in 2013 and featured eight sides playing matches in the US and Spain: LA Galaxy, Real, Valencia, Milan, Internazionale, Juventus, Chelsea and Everton. This summer’s edition has expanded to include Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur, Paris Saint-Germain, Lyon, Bayern, Borussia Dortmund, Internazionale, Juventus, Milan, Roma, Benfica, Atlético Madrid, Barcelona and Real. Arsenal and Chelsea will meet in the Dublin clash on August 1st. Stillitano states that Ross’s investment is “beyond tens of millions” and reels off impressive ticket sale numbers.
He says: “There were 492,000 sold in 2013, 642,000 in 2014, 985,000 for 2015, 964,000 in 2016 and 903,000 for 2017. And we think this year we’re on track for 1.1m.”
That makes a grand total of 5,086,000, with 2014’s meeting between Manchester United and Real Madrid at Ann Arbour’s Michigan Stadium drawing a record 109,318 attendance for a stateside “soccer” game.
The ICC’s grip on football’s summer season could, in time, reach to the women’s and youth game. At the Miami Dolphins’ Hard Rock Stadium on 27-29 July, City, Lyon, PSG and North Carolina Courage women will play semi-finals, a third-place play-off and final.
United have just started a women’s team and Stillitano says: “It is really interesting. I was with José Mourinho at UCLA [training base], talking to the folks at Manchester United, and they were saying: ‘We want to be in the women’s tournament next year. We want your advice.’
“Juventus have just launched a women’s team this year [too]– and for us it’s the other side of the coin, because America is the standard bearer when it comes to women’s football. We think it’s an interesting twist and one that will really help women’s soccer here.”
The ICC Futures began on Monday and runs for six days until July 22nd: its ambassador is Alessandro Del Piero – a member of Italy’s triumphant 2006 World Cup team.
“We are really excited about it,” Stillitano says. “We have 24 teams and some of them have been saying it’s the best youth tournament they’ve ever been involved in. It’s at Disney [at ESPN’s Worldwide Sports Complex in the Orlando resort], involves eight teams from the MLS, eight from our ICC competition and eight all-star teams from various states. We’ll expand it to 32 teams next year. There is the Little League World Series here – they get about 2m people a day watching. Youth baseball stands still for this and we’re trying to replicate it with the Futures.
“We are creating one of best youth team tournaments in the world and the No1 women’s club championship in the world. No one is saying the ICC is going to be bigger than the Champions League. But if we can keep enthusiasm up, and see how the teams are taking women’s soccer seriously and the kids, [let’s see where we can go].
“The response has been crazy – I think we’ll be turning teams away next year. Mr Ross has done a really good job of investing in this – you know he won’t get any of his money back on the kids and women’s side.”
The flagship men’s event now encompasses North America, Asia and Europe – three of the world’s seven continents. Yet Stillitano and his boss, Ross, remain ambitious.
“We’re really blessed – we virtually have all the big names of European football,” Stillitano says. “We needed to stabilise the business, make it global, and we have. What we are really trying to do to grow the tournament is to bring in global sponsors that go across the continents and we also see the next evolutionary step as TV.”
Premier Sports, a satellite channel, is the UK broadcaster, and for the US it is ESPN. “TV and sponsorship is still growing considerably – ticket sales are going to be ticket sales: you’ll get to the point where you’re filling up stadiums, great, but you can’t build a bigger stadium,” says Stillitano. “A lot of this depends on where European football goes, because I’m looking at it and wondering: ‘Are there going to be consistent schedules?’ Right now they have to manipulate the schedule [regarding domestic competitions].
“In the ICC everyone right now plays three games across the globe. You don’t have a knockout format because, for example, the French and English leagues start on different days and its impossible to co-ordinate that. Steve and other people talk of one schedule that everyone would live by. Again it’s a little bit of a holy grail but that would certainly be good for us.” – Guardian service