By Jason A. Young, MA & Michael S. Carroll, PhD
On July 21, 2021, United States District Court Judge Valerie Caproni dismissed a case against U.S. Soccer and the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) alleging that the organizations had conspired to benefit Major League Soccer (MLS) by refusing to sanction matches in the US and thus cut off the American market.
The lawsuit was filed by Relevant Sports, which claimed that U.S. Soccer was refusing to sanction International Soccer matches in the United States unlawfully, and that U.S. Soccer was attempting to frustrate ‘the promotions’ from entering the U.S. soccer market in an effort to support Major League Soccer (MLS). Relevant Sports alleged that U.S. Soccer had contracts with FIFA and other regional confederations and national associations that ensured that their request for a sanctioned event would be summarily refused, and that boycotts by other professional leagues and their players would unfairly continue for all unsanctioned Games.
FIFA administers soccer worldwide with six regional confederations that manage operations at the continental level and enforce FIFA regulations. The Confederation of North, Central, and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) is the regional confederation governing North American soccer and specifically the U.S. soccer national associations which sanctions official games in the U.S. The U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) is the recognized national governing body for soccer and is endorsed fully by FIFA as the recognized national association for governing soccer in the U.S.
As FIFA’s recognized national association for soccer in the U.S., the USSF has the authority to sanction official international soccer games and friendlies held in the U.S. These “official games” are soccer matches that count towards the competing clubs’ official league records and are often between foreign countries’ national teams and/or professional soccer clubs from foreign countries. By contrast, “friendly matches” are not part of an official regular season league schedule, so they do not count towards a club’s official record.
It is a violation of FIFA regulations for soccer clubs to play in the U.S. without USSF’s approval. USSF has agreed to notify FIFA of any international game that are planned to be played in the U.S. Third-party promoters such as Relevant Sports frequently seek to obtain approval from FIFA and their governing bodies to host Official games. Players competing in unsanctioned games risk being deemed ineligible to participate in FIFA-sanctioned competitions, including representing their home country in the World Cup. According to FIFA’s bylaws and regulations regulating international matches, FIFA reserves the right to make the final ruling on the approvals of any and all international matches. As a result, Relevant Sports’ only means to seek sanctioning for their event was by way of a FIFA-licensed match agent. Match agents are obligated to be a neutral person and agree to FIFA’s Match Agents Regulations. Relevant Sports match agent was Charlie Stillitano, who has in the past organized and marketed friendly games in the U.S., including a game between Real Madrid and Manchester United in 2014.
In 2018, Relevant Sports announced that it intended to host an “Official Game” with two Spanish La Liga teams in Miami, specifically FC Barcelona and Girona. FIFA’s President, Gianni Infantino, immediately questioned whether FIFA would endorse the Game, as it was beyond the teams’ home territory. The Spanish national soccer association and USSF requested guidance from FIFA to determine whether the game should be sanctioned. The FIFA Council in October of 2018 dispensed a ruling forbidding the staging of official season games outside of the participant league’s home countries. The mandate was consistent with FIFA’s regulations requiring Official Games to take place in the home league’s region, and FIFA made it clear that any failure to comply would result in expulsion from FIFA. Subsequent to this public statement, FC Barcelona withdrew its commitment to participate in the match Relevant Sports planned to organize in Miami.
Leagues or clubs that are affiliated to a member association may only take part in competitions on that member association’s territory and only under exceptional circumstances will authorization be given by both member associations, the respective confederations and FIFA. The Spanish National Association was strongly opposed to the game in Miami. The plaintiff argued that the event fell apart due to push back from the players and especially FIFA.
In March 2019, Mr. Stillitano presented an application to USSF for endorsement to host an Official FIFA sanctioned event between two Ecuadorian soccer clubs. Prior to submitting the application, Relevant Sports obtained approval from the Ecuador’s regional confederation, the and the proposed teams’ and their league. In April 2019, the application was denied because it would violate the FIFA bylaw banning “Official Games” outside the clubs’ home territory.
Relevant Sports alleged that the refusal of USSF to sanction their events was the result of an ‘anticompetitive agreement’ with FIFA to limit the organizing of any Official Games in the U.S. by refusing to authorize Official Games outside of the teams’ home territory and further claimed that USSF entered into an anticompetitive agreement with FIFA. Relevant Sports contends that USSF was illegally and artificially controlling the competitive market in the U.S. declaring in a distinct tort claim, interference with its business relationships.
USSF moved in August 2021 to induce arbitration or to dismiss the complaint, arguing that claim was ‘prohibited’ by prior covenant not to sue, that FIFA is an ‘indispensable party’, and that Relevant Sports had failed to prove any antitrust was presented in the case.
The defendant’s motion to compel arbitration was granted, and litigation was stayed on November 1, 2020. Officially, Relevant Sports motion to compel arbitration was denied, and the antitrust claim was dismissed.
Relevant Sports, LLC v. United States Soccer Federation, Inc. (S.D.N.Y., 2019). Retrieved from: https://cdn-s3.si.com/s3fs-public/download/relevent-lawsuit-us-soccer.pdf
Jason A. Young is a PhD student in the Sport Management program at Troy University, specializing in research related to sport law and leadership in sport and recreation. He also serves as Education Program Coordinator for the Canadian Ski Instructors Alliance. He lives in Collingwood, ON.
Michael S. Carroll is a Full Professor of Sport Management at Troy University specializing in research related to sport law and risk management in sport and recreation. He also serves as Online Program Coordinator for the University. He lives in Orlando, FL.