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Darryl's Dispatch: Interview With Charlie Stillitano

Darryl Houston Smith

Darryl Houston Smith

Darryl is a member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association and in 2011-12 won the CBSSports.com Experts Fantasy Hockey League title. Find more of his work at ProHockeyWeekly.com or BlogTalkRadio. Follow him on Twitter at @dhoustonsmith.

Darryl's Dispatch
Interview with Charlie Stillitano
By Darryl Houston Smith and Jan Smith

2013 Guinness International Champions Cup: Bring the best soccer to the fans

RotoWire's Jan Smith and Darryl Houston Smith recently interviewed Charlie Stillitano, Chief Executive Officer of Relevant Sports (a division of RSE Ventures) and host of a daily radio talk show, called "The Football Show" for SiriusXM Satellite Radio about the upcoming Guinness International Champions Cup. This summer eight of the world's most famous clubs will compete on some of world's grandest stages during the inaugural Guinness International Champions Cup. This world class field includes:  AC Milan, Chelsea, Everton, Inter Milan, Juventus, LA Galaxy, Real Madrid, and Valencia. The matches will take place starting on July 27th at the Mestalla in Valencia, Spain, before moving onto such venues as AT&T Park in San Francisco, University of Phoenix Stadium in Phoenix, Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, Met Life Stadium in New Jersey, and finally Sun Life Stadium in Miami, where all eight teams will compete over the tourney's final two days on August 6th and 7th.

What is your goal for this Tournament?

Charlie Stillitano: Short term, the goal is to create the pre-eminent pre-season tournament in the world, the one that every team wants to play in. We wanted the teams to have their full roster of players. The managers have been our biggest fans. The coaches see the importance of having a full team here, not just for promotional purposes, but really more from selfish perspective. Look at all the new managers who are coming over - Everton's Roberto Martinez, Real Madrid's Carlo Ancelotti, and Chelsea's once and future Jose Mourinho. They need to get all 25 of their players ready for the grinding schedule ahead - the FA Cup, the Carling Cup (recently rebranded as the Capital One Cup), Champions league, their regular league and the Europa Cup. I can't tell you how pleased they are to come to the States to play and have great training environments.

Given the impressive list of teams you've assembled, it looks like you are well on your way to achieving that. What was the biggest challenge in arranging this year's tournament?

Charlie Stillitano: Scheduling was the biggest obstacle. The European leagues all have different start times. Then there was the Confederation Cup in Brazil which ate up the last half of June. Italy's national team has 13 players in our tournament, Spain has eight. Actually, it was Jose Mourinho (while he was still at Real Madrid) who helped me sort it out. "I will bring all my players," he said, "but the tournament will have to be around the 25-26 of July through the beginning of August, otherwise I won't have my players back from Confederation Cup." 

What is your long term vision for this tournament?

Charlie Stillitano: The first step in the long term vision will be moving this to other cities, keeping the finals in the US, most likely, and getting cities to bid on them. There's also great interest in expanding this beyond our borders with Canada and Mexico being obvious choices. In addition, we're talking about doing a version of this somewhere else in the wintertime, perhaps the Middle East or Asia. We already have a great, great title sponsor in Guinness and we anticipate getting more which will help us grow the tournament.

Were you ever worried that you might not pull this off?

Charlie Stillitano: That's a great question. As much as I realize that it is a possibility, I don't allow myself that out, if you will. If I did, I think I would have given up - not just on this project but other projects over the years. With soccer in the US, I've always seen it as a few of us pushing a boulder up a hill for many, many years. If you don't have the ability to stick with it, you won't succeed. I'm blessed with being as persistent as hell and I keep going.

I know that Fox Sports is launching new networks and are going to be showing these games in the US. How widely will these games be shown elsewhere?

Charlie Stillitano: We're blessed here in the States to have Fox step up to be the host broadcaster for this year's tournament. I was talking with my colleagues about this the other day. Things have sure changed. We used to have to beg to get this on the air here. This year, we had a number of networks interested. I think this is a tremendous step forward for soccer in this country. Beyond our borders this is truly a global event. Last time we did it, we had 152 countries - from Mauritius to Madagascar - televise them either live or delayed and we will certainly match that this time. The fans are interested in seeing their teams. Who are they bringing in?  How will the new players perform? How will the new managers do?

One of the innovations for this year's tournament is the trophy so that the winner will have something to hold above their heads on the field and bring back home for the trophy case.

Charlie Stillitano: The trophy is being created right now at Tiffany's. When you give the players something to play for, it means so much more than just playing one friendly match and then moving on. Everybody tells me, "Ah, it's just a bunch of friendly matches." They say that about the Confederation Cup, too. You saw the players out there in Brazil in June, how much they wanted to win. Whether it was Spain beating Italy on penalty kicks or even the third-place game with Italy winning on penalty kicks, you saw the joy in the players' faces. One thing we're hoping to include in the future is prize money for things like most valuable player.

I have one technical question. One of the things that fans are worried about with these pre-season matches, they pay the money to watch their teams play and at half time 11 subs come on. What are the substitution limits for this tournament?

Charlie Stillitano: We're looking at that now. Because it's preseason we want to make available a significant number. We're deciding between 7 and 11 and I think we're going to land on 11 but with very limited times (three) during the game so we don't disrupt the flow.

The structure of these games is such that you are playing every two days and you are playing against teams that are bitter rivals. What if we end up with AC Milan versus Inter Milan in NY, for example? With these bitter rivals, they want some protection from the heat and the elements of preseason because they are starting out. So we have to find that balance between giving the teams the ability to field their best players, obviously, but also be able to give them some rest when needed.

Look at Chelsea's roster, there is at least $75 million worth of talent on the bench.

Charlie Stillitano: And to your point, the reality is that these teams like Real Madrid and like Chelsea, dare I say it, have 25 players that in some cases are national players. What's most important to the fans is that it is competitive and that the players really want to win the games. What a wonderful thing for our fans to get to see these players.

How did you get involved with RSE Ventures?

Charlie Stillitano: This is really the vision of Stephen Ross and Matt Higgins. Stephen Ross, the owner of the Miami Dolphins, literally saw the changing face, rather the changing language of Miami where football as we call it is probably just as popular as football as he would call it. He saw Miami as the gateway to Latin America and really wanted to make it the focal point of soccer throughout the world. He brought in a brilliant young guy in Matt Higgins who runs RSE Ventures. Matt thought why not have a division that focuses on soccer? They approached us and we talked about it and it seemed like a great opportunity. Even though we had a wonderful situation at Creative Artist Agency, I think the business model here suits us more. Stephen Ross and Matt Higgins are much more inclined to take risks.

Can you speak about the roles that your colleagues Tony Meola and Paolo Maldini played in helping these games come about?

Charlie Stillitano: We brought them both on as ambassadors for the tournament. Who better to have than people who have played in these preseason tournaments and friendlies in the past?  Pablo Maldini was an obvious choice with the great pedigree he has. He also represents the new wave of player who has bought a house in Miami. Seems like all the soccer stars want to move there. I can't tell you how many players have said to me, I want to play in the Miami franchise and I tell them there isn't one yet. When I was a kid, everybody wanted to play in New York. Then when MLS came along, the other hot city was LA. And now the hot city for Europeans and Latin Americans is Miami. It is a vibrant and hip place. It is cool, I guess, to live there.

And then there's Tony Meola. We brought in the LA Galaxy and the champion of the MLS which adds an interesting twist to this, so why not have an American voice here that speaks on behalf of the American players playing in this tournament?  We plan on expanding the ambassadors program in future years. We're thinking of creating events around these legends, special tickets for receptions and having the fans have a chance to meet them. We're talking about next year having the managers to hold shop talk for a lot of people in between the games. This year, we've found two perfect people and because they both of Italian heritage, I'm really happy.

Since we're talking about the MLS in Miami what do think are the prospects for getting an MLS team in there?

Charlie Stillitano: I hear what everyone hears. I know that our owner has been courted, if you will, to bring an MLS team to Miami. Everybody is talking about it. It goes hand and glove with what I've been saying. Everyone thinks Miami is hip. Even a guy like David Beckham is looking at Miami and I'm not sure 20 years ago he would have been thinking Miami. Do I think it has a future?  Certainly, I don't know when, but I do believe that it just a matter of when they decide to do it and who they decide to partner with. The important thing is that it is strong ownership there in Miami when they decide to do it. And that it is a group that will really stick to it. It's a fascinating market. We've done research lately with a consulting group and we've learned that the Miami market is amongst the strongest - if not THE strongest -- in the country for soccer interest. In fact, the World Cup ratings were highest in Miami than any other city in the States last time around. When you bring a big game to LA, Chicago, New York or Washington, you fill a stadium. The challenge is how do you get the people out there, how do you keep them excited about a team game in and game out in Miami.

US Soccer is celebrating its centennial season. If you could change anything about soccer in America what would you change?

Charlie Stillitano: That is the best question I have ever heard, I wish I had a great answer for it. If you talk about change in the past versus change in the future, these are two different things completely. What I would have liked to have seen differently was more of a foundation and more of a US market in the old Cosmos days. It was really limited to just the ethnic market. Since then MLS has done great job in cultivating the American audience. Nowadays, if you go to a bar in any major American city and the US national team is playing, then the US is really the main draw. Just fifteen years ago when Tab Ramos, Tony Meola, John Harkes, and Peter Vermes were playing, that wasn't the case. They'd play Mexico in Los Angeles and there would be 80,000 Mexicans and 12 Americans in the stands. Their home game was really an away game. That's changing but it is still not there yet and that is what I would really like to see - bridging the gap between the ethnic fan and the American fan to make soccer no longer a foreign sport in our country, to make soccer an American game.

That was a really thoughtful answer. How did you fall in love with soccer?

Charlie Stillitano: I fell in love with soccer through my Dad, so it was really ethnically driven. You grow up a Yankee fan because of Joe DiMaggio, Phil Rizzuto and Yogi Berra. I had two heroes as a kid, one was Willie Mays and one was Gianni Rivera who played for AC Milan and the Italian national team. My Dad and I used to watch the old UHF station out of Paterson, New Jersey that would only show a live feed of one-half of an Italian national game. There was no other soccer on television. I was brought up loving the game. My father and his brothers started the Italian-American soccer league in New Jersey and they used to bring over teams to play in Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City. They used to bring Pelé's team, Bobby Moore from West Ham, Giorgio Chinaglia with Lazio.

Speaking of Giorgio Chinaglia, I hear there is a story from when you were a ball boy at a friendly match in Jersey City between Santos and Lazio in 1973.

Charlie Stillitano: My best friend growing up, Jeremy Higgins, and I were both ball boys at the game. Pelé was playing for Santos and Giorgio for Lazio. Pelé, in those days, would have to surreptitiously leave the field otherwise the fans would chase him. It was 3 to 0 to Santos. The ball came to the sidelines. It's a penalty kick for Lazio. Pelé realized it was time to get out of there. He turns to run. The fans caught on to what he was doing and in no time there were 10,000 people dashing around the field. The New Jersey police are on horseback. They shout to me and Higgs to get into the goal, it's the safest place. We get in the goal. People are running everywhere. It is total mayhem. I have a vision of Pelé running just in his underwear - they had ripped off his shirt, he had given people his socks - he was just trying to get off the field. Giorgio Chinaglia, the great goal scorer who became one of my dearest friends, is on the penalty spot with the ball. No other players are on the field. Higgs and I are in goal. Giorgio swipes a fan aside with his forearm and then kicks the ball into the net. Thirty or so years later, I was on a radio show with him and we got talking about that match. I told him I remember that game very well. It was 3-0 Santos. He said, "No, it was 3 to 1. I scored a penalty kick."  I have to be the only person on earth who knew about that penalty kick. I said, "Giorgio, I was in the goal." "Oh, you knew about it then," he answered. "Giorgio, there was a policeman behind you on horseback, there were no other players on the field, you knocked a fan over and kicked it in the net," I answered. "But it was still a goal," he said.

Spoken like a true scorer. What would Giorgio Chinaglia think of this tournament?

Charlie Stillitano: He would love it. Giorgio's vision was to create this competitive tournament. He felt that the modern player is different. He had a great saying when asked to describe the difference between players of today and his era. He said, "Players today put on cologne and hair gel before the game. In our day, the game was the game and then you had fun." Now it's all about image. You need something like this tournament to let the players know how important it is to fans.

Sir Alex Ferguson did something that always caught my attention. We were going to go to dinner in Philadelphia. He called me to cancel. Later I heard the reason why. There were 30-40 fans outside the Four Season's hotel after a friendly match and only one player stopped to sign autographs. All the other players just walked on by. Sir Alex stayed in that night basically just to yell at the team. He went off on them. "You don't understand. It's because of the fans that you make this kind of money and have this lifestyle. And you don't take two seconds to sign some kid's autograph? Do you know how much his life changes when you do that?" He gave them the full hairdryer treatment. It is something I think that the players sometimes lose sight of. Giorgio never forgot it. Sir Alex Ferguson knows it. I think that creating this tournament and creating some real competition forces the players to get into that mind set to bring 100 percent to the game. I think that is the most important thing that we can do for the fans.