Closing off European football competitions to include only elite clubs could make them far richer, according to the American sports executive who has held talks with the leading English Premier League teams about a shake-up to long-established league structures.
The Relevent Sports chairman, Charlie Stillitano, held talks with Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United on Tuesday in London about this year’s International Champions Cup (ICC), an annual pre-season friendly tournament organised by his company. Stillitano confirmed they also discussed “restructuring the Champions League” – an issue high on the European Club Association agenda amid a power vacuum at Uefa.
Stillitano revealed that the European governing body has been keen on working with the ICC, which already attracts some of the world’s wealthiest teams to compete in games across the globe for a lucrative but meaningless prize. “We have even talked to Uefa in the past because they had an interest in our summer tournament,” Stillitano told the US satellite radio station SiriusXM. “That is something they would like to integrate into their portfolio.”
Joining forces with Relevent’s ICC would currently be incompatible with Uefa’s existing sponsorships. There are no plans with Uefa presently on the table but discussions have not been closed off.
Arsenal are the only team from the talks to go on the record in denying they advocate a breakaway Super League for Europe’s leading clubs.
Discussions within the ECA about the merits of advocating guaranteed Champions League places for prestigious teams come at a time when Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United are all in danger of missing out on qualifying for Europe’s top competition next season.
“What would Manchester United argue: did we create soccer or did Leicester create [it]?” said Stillitano, who met United’s executive vice-chairman, Ed Woodward, on Tuesday. “Let’s call it the money pot created by soccer and the fandom around the world. Who has had more of an integral role, Manchester United or Leicester? It’s a wonderful, wonderful story – but you could see it from Manchester United’s point of view, too.”
If the Premier League season ended now, Leicester and Tottenham would qualify for the Champions League alongside Arsenal and Manchester City.
“Maybe that is absolutely spectacular unless you are a Manchester United fan, Liverpool fan … or a Chelsea fan,” Stillitano said. “I guess they don’t have a birthright to be in it every year but it’s the age-old argument: US sports franchises versus what they have in Europe. There are wonderful, wonderful, wonderful elements to relegation and promotion and there are good arguments for a closed system.”
Stillitano believes Europe’s biggest clubs deserve to make more cash from the Champions League, given their contribution to making it such a financial success. He said fans are more likely to watch the Juventus v Bayern Munich and Arsenal v Barcelona games in the current round of 16 rather than matches involving PSV Eindhoven and Ghent.
"This is going to sound arrogant and it’s the furthest thing from it … but suddenly when you see the teams we have this summer in the ICC you are going to shake your head and say, ‘Isn’t that the Champions League?’” Stillitano said. “No, the Champions League is PSV and Ghent.”
Voicing the complaints he hears from clubs, Stillitano said: “I could make a lot more money, I can be a lot more visible, I can help my sponsors out but right now I am locked into doing certain things that are really historic.”