Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Charlie Stillitano rises, falls and returns to prominence in American soccer

Those of you with long enough memories might have heard of Charlie Stillitano before he became a host on SiriusXM satellite radio's soccer channel.

Charlie Stillitano rises, falls and returns to prominence in American soccer

(David Santiago/El Nuevo Herald/MCT file photo)
(David Santiago/El Nuevo Herald/MCT file photo)

Those of you with long enough memories might have heard of Charlie Stillitano before he became a host on SiriusXM satellite radio's soccer channel.

If you do know of him, you know of his history in MLS, and later of promoting summer soccer friendlies the United States. His current company, Relevent Sports, is bringing two such games to the Philadelphia area this year: Ireland-Costa Rica on June 6 at PPL Park, and Inter Milan-AS Roma on August 2 at Lincoln Financial Field.

I recently spoke with Stillitano in a lengthy interview about his career in American soccer, and about this summer's exhibition games in our region.

In 1993, Stillitano helped found the U.S. Soccer Foundation, which is the charitable arm of the U.S. Soccer Federation. A year later, he served as the venue director at Giants Stadium for the 1994 World Cup. After that, Stillitano was hired as the first ever general manager of the New York/New Jersey MetroStars, from 1996 to 1999.

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It was a rocky ride. The MetroStars did not lack for talent: marquee names included Roberto Donadoni, Tony Meola, Tab Ramos, Giovanni Savarese and current Union assistant coach Mike Sorber.

But they did not have a winning record in any of those four years, and finished last in the Eastern Conference twice. They also paid an exorbitant amount of money to rent Giants Stadium, and played on artificial turf surrounded by seas of empty seats.

After the 1999 season, Stillitano was fired from his role as GM. He was replaced by Tampa Bay Mutiny general manager Nick Sakiewicz, who you all know as the CEO of the Philadelphia Union.

Stillitano remained with MetroMedia, the company that owned the MetroStars, in a business development role for a year, helping to bring international friendlies to Giants Stadium for a while.

“I had hair on my head, and Nick still does, which is good,” Stillitano quipped. “We were friendly years ago when I left the MetroStars and Nick came in after me [and] we've stayed friendly ever since.”           

Their relationship continues to bear fruit, as evidenced by the two games set for this summer.

For a long time, Stillitano's tenure with the MetroStars was what he was best known for. It has taken him a long time to establish a new - and more positive - reputation, but he has gotten there.

The path started in 2000, when he started a marketing agency called ChampionsWorld, with the goal of bringing European teams to the United States for high-profile summer friendlies. It included a brief but much-hyped commercial partnership between Manchester United and the New York Yankees.

Among the first games ChampionsWorld promoted was the United-Barcelona game that christened Lincoln Financial Field in 2003.

But this, too, was not without controversy. Stillitano had to pay the U.S. Soccer Federation $2.5 million a year in sanctioning fees for the right to run the tour. Those fees were a major reason why ChampionsWorld went bankrupt in 2005. resulting in a $50 million lawsuit against U.S. Soccer.

The suit was filed in 2006, and the case ran for six years. In 2012, it was finally dismissed.

In the wake of ChampionsWorld's collapse, Stillitano moved to the sports marketing behemoth Creative Artists Agency in 2007. Not long after that, he started rebuilding the bridge that he played a role in burning down.

Starting in 2009, CAA formed a partnership with Major League Soccer to include MLS teams in the European teams' summer tours. That brought a touch of glamour to those teams - remember the Union's games against Manchester United and Real Madrid? - and just as importantly, ensured that MLS got a piece of the financial pie.

“So many positive things came out of the MLS teams playing in the series of games,” Stillitano told me. “We thought it brought in a lot of positives, from the competitive nature of the games to local fans getting behind their local teams.”

After the 2012 series, CAA sold the rights to the World Football Challenge to a company launched by Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross called Relevent Sports and Entertainment. Stillitano moved to RSE at that time, and remains there now.

RSE's main soccer property is the Guinness International Champions Cup, which filled the gap left by the end of the WFC. Although Relevent doesn't work as directly with MLS as CAA did, Stillitano told me that he has “no animus at all” toward the league. That's part of why the Los Angeles Galaxy participated in last year's Guinness Cup.

Indeed, Stillitano told me he would very much like to continue having MLS teams in the tournament. There won't be as many as there were in the WFC, in part because MLS had a financial incentive to get as many of its teams involved as possible.

But Stillitano bears no ill will towards MLS. Indeed, there would have been a team in this year's tournament if not for scheduling hurdles due to the World Cup. Because MLS is taking a break during the group stage, it has to have all of its teams playing a full slate in late July and early August.

“We are going to include MLS teams going forward in the future, always,” he said. “We think it's an important element. It gives MLS a chance to shine in a competitive format [and] our teams love to play the MLS teams.”

Stillitano told me that he tried to get the Los Angeles Galaxy, Seattle Sounders, New York Red Bulls and Toronto FC at various stages.

Toronto in particular would have brought a personal connection for him. Stillitano is close with Michael Bradley, having worked on Bob Bradley's coaching staff at Princeton for three years in the 1980s.

There could have been a game in Toronto anyway, of course. But BMO Field is unavailable because of the FIFA Under-20 Women's World Cup, and the Rogers Centre has its usual slate of Blue Jays baseball.

Overall, Stillitano told me that he's “100 percent” interested in having Canadian teams play in the Guinness Cup.

But whether the teams are Canadian or American, it will never be easy to fit MLS teams in the tournament as long as the league has a spring-to-fall schedule. Stillitano is well aware, and knows what it takes to make MLS participation work.

“In the future, we would think that you'd play one or two of the games at the MLS home team's venue, and then probably a third away from the venue somewhere they would have a reach,” he told me. “A good example is Charlotte [North Carolina], a good market with no MLS team right now. I could see, in the future, a D.C. United or Philadelphia Union jumping into Charlotte, for example.”

Last year, the Galaxy played one game each in Los Angeles and Phoenix before a third-place contest in Miami. The format was a bracket with loser-round games, similar to what college basketball uses for its regular-season tournaments.

This year, the format will be a three-game group stage followed by a one-game final. That will make it easier to keep MLS teams close to home.

(It also provides for more guaranteed matchups, which helps to drive ticket sales across the board.)

So now we come back to the present, and to the two games Relevent is bringing to the Philadelphia region this summer.

Stillitano told me that he and Sakiewicz discussed having Inter and Roma play at PPL Park decided together to take the game to Lincoln Financial Field due to the expected big demand from the region's Italian community. And of course, there are fans of both teams up and down the Eastern seaboard.

“The general consensus is that we'll probably sell in the 30,000 [ticket] range for the matchup,” Stillitano said.

Overall, he's quite bullish on Philadelphia as a soccer town, and has been for a long time.

“I think it's a really strong market and obviously the Union have done really well season-ticket wise and for their all their matches,” he said. “We discovered it years ago - we did the first game at Lincoln Financial Field as you know, [and] we sold it out in a couple of hours.”

Stillitano noted that his memories of watching soccer in Philadelphia go back to when John Harkes led Sheffield Wednesday into Veterans Stadium to play the U.S. national team in 1991, and even before that to the NASL's Philadelphia Atoms.

“I always thought of it as an ethnic market that probably in the early to mid-2000s became a really strong youth soccer market too,” he said. “I think the ethnic groups are still there [and] strong - one of the reasons why we are bringing two Italian teams down there is that we expect there to be a strong [turnout] in the Philadelphia area.”

As for Costa Rica-Ireland, that game is an unexpected bonus. It was originally supposed to be played at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., as a doubleheader with Portugal-Mexico. But Stillitano got worried about over-using the natural grass surface that's being brought in to cover the FieldTurf base. So Costa Rica-Ireland got the boot.

There were plenty of reasons why PPL Park made sense as a replacement.

"We were looking for a small home for it that we'd be able to fill up," Stillitano said, and also a location that would draw Costa Rican and Irish expats. With easy access from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland, the Union's home fit the bill.

Between now and the start of the World Cup, you've got the U.S. national team playing at Red Bull Arena, two international friendlies at PPL Park and a Union home game. That's a pretty good lineup for local soccer fans to feast on in the next few weeks. 

Stillitano will be watching just like the rest of you. And this time, he'll be able to sit back in a MLS stadium and just enjoy it.

Philly.com
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The Goalkeeper is your home for the latest news about the Philadelphia Union, Major League Soccer, the National Women's Soccer League, the U.S. men's and women's national teams, and the rest of the world's most popular sport. It's also a place for fans to gather and celebrate the culture of soccer and its unique place on the sports landscape.

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