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Charlie Stillitano Q+A: ‘Extraordinary interest’ from big clubs for future Women’s ICC tournaments

Charlie Stillitano. (Photo provided | © Ira L. Black)

Thursday and Sunday will see the first-ever women’s edition of the International Champions Cup played in Miami, featuring the National Women’s Soccer League’s North Carolina Courage as well as European powers Olympique Lyonnais, Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City.

The tournament is the first such women’s club competition of its kind, and though it will make a very modest debut in 2018, the foundation has been laid for what organizers see as a much larger opportunity in the years to come. FIFA does not operate a women’s Club World Cup. The most prestigious club tournament for women at the moment – much like the men’s game – is the UEFA Champions League. A friendly tournament won’t match the prestige of that season-long grind, but unlike the men’s ICC – which will always be a series of showcase friendlies as teams prepare for their upcoming seasons – the women’s tournament has the chance to fill that void and take on more meaning – if it can get the logistics right.

Charlie Stillitano is the executive chairman of Relevent Sports and the brains behind the ICC, the name and format for the competition which has grown in scale and value since 2012. Combined with similar previous ventures and work in other areas of American soccer, he has been promoting the game in the U.S. for over two decades. Stillitano spoke to The Equalizer about putting together a women’s tournament, the immediate demand from major worldwide clubs to be involved, and the commercial opportunity it  — and women’s soccer in general — holds going forward.

EQZ: What is the impetus for starting a women’s International Championship Cup? Was there any particular moment that you remember that set this into motion?

Stillitano: It was a little more serendipitous than anything. Nike was working on a project where the top 100 young women get together out there in Portland, and we had known that through the Nike relationship, PSG and Man City were going out there to basically coach the girls. So, we had been talking about launching this year a youth program, and we were thinking about the women’s [tournament], and we thought, maybe we have to start it next year – just because we’re doing so many things at the same time of year.

But then when we saw that PSG and Man City were going out there to be part of training with the best and brightest young women in America, we said, what a good opportunity. Let’s see if we can put together a launch of the women’s tournament. We didn’t expect very much in a sense that, we are the standard-bearers here in America. The women are the best. I like to joke, ‘Welcome to America, where men are men and women win the World Cup.’ So, it was a little bit of the other side of the coin, where we were looking for the right moment to launch it. And with the NWSL, we were thinking this could really be an opportunity. So, we put it together, and we managed to get the North Carolina Courage. We were going to have Chelsea originally, but then Chelsea coach [Emma Hayes] was having twins. So, we went for Lyon, and a tournament was born. We thought we’d have a week of activities in Florida. We thought long and hard about where we should have it, but we thought, if we can sandwich it between two men’s games, and have some interesting activities down in Miami – since we own the stadium – we could really make it a week long of soccer activities. That’s how it was born.

EQZ: Is there a recognition that you are filling a void here for an international women’s club competition? FIFA has talked for years about a women’s Club World Cup, but nothing has materialized yet.

Stillitano: Yeah, without question. Just like the boys, the Under-14s – which just finished a successful week down in Disney – there’s nothing like this on the women’s side, in this space. We looked at, and just like we don’t think there’s a Little League World Series [for soccer], we certainly don’t see a women’s Club World Cup. Unlike the men’s tournament, where we’re trying to be the best preseason tournament in the world – and we’ve hit a nice niche where every manager takes it seriously, because they want to prepare. I was sitting there with Paolo Maldini and Pep Guardiola, and we were just chatting in Italian. The two of them were talking, and I was listening in awe. Paolo said to him, ‘Well, these aren’t like normal friendlies.’ At that moment, Pep Guardiola says, ‘They’re not. They’re not at all. These are incredible opportunities for us to prepare these young guys, and get the veterans in shape.’

So, the women’s tournament, we don’t see anything like it. Unlike the Champions League, unlike Premier League, Serie A – we’re competing with these, in the sense of attention. On the women’s side, let’s be honest: it’s the World Cup and the Olympics. There’s no other tournament; there certainly isn’t any other women’s club team tournament [of that scale]. We saw it as a real opportunity. In fact, FIFA representatives – heads of the women’s programs – are coming down to see this tournament, how we work through the logistics of it. They were very positive; they were encouraging us. They thought it was a great thing that we were doing. I do agree with you, there is definitely not this in the market place. That is certainly one of the reasons we decided to do it.

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