Relevent Sports, the billionaire’s media group selling football to America

Encouraged by the lucrative potential of making US spectators fall in love with European football, a billionaire father and son-in-law duo are betting they can sell the world’s most popular sport stateside.

Relevent Sports Group, a New York-based media company backed by real estate mogul Stephen Ross and led by chief executive Daniel Sillman, is fighting for a piece of an international gold rush involving teams, leagues, sport brands and media companies.

The moment is right, with the US due to co-host the World Cup in 2026 alongside Mexico and Canada, a tournament that Fifa, world football’s governing body, expects to bring in revenue of more than $10bn. Ross’s Hard Rock Stadium in Miami is one of the venues. The US is also set to host next year’s Copa América and the revamped Fifa Club World Cup in 2025.

“The next five years are enormous,” Sillman told the Financial Times in an interview. “You’ll see a consistent drumbeat of events come to the United States.”

Although US investors have typically bought leading clubs such as Chelsea and AC Milan to get into football, Relevent has taken an alternative route, hosting matches and expanding into media rights deals.

From its origins in hosting big money exhibition matches for clubs, Relevent has turned its attention to leagues. The company partnered with the Premier League on a nine-match “Summer Series” that drew 265,000 attendees, as well as with Spain’s La Liga for a four-match Summer Tour in the US and Mexico which attracted 100,000 fans.

With the European football season now under way, the time is ripe to tap American audiences.

Relevent and La Liga want to take things a step further by bringing competitive matches to the US eventually.

The company is currently involved in legal action against Fifa and US Soccer as it fights to stage official league matches in the US. In 2018, Relevent teamed up with La Liga to host an official season match between Barcelona and Girona in Miami. However, Fifa introduced a policy that barred leagues hosting games outside their home country and Barcelona withdrew.

“Our hope is to have an official Spanish league match in the US,” La Liga president Javier Tebas said. “You can be assured that when we can, legally, the next day we will be organising a match in the United States.” Fifa declined to comment.

But more than six years since bringing El Clásico — the showdown between Barcelona and Real Madrid — to America for the first time as an exhibition match, Relevent no longer depends on events.

When the pandemic made global travel impossible, the company accelerated a move into media rights and has since brokered US TV deals worth billions of dollars for Uefa’s Champions League and La Liga.

“We reached numbers that we didn’t expect,” Uefa president Aleksander Čeferin told the FT. “In the States, they’re ready to pay much more for the best and nothing for the rest.”

Backed by capital from Ross, who also owns the Miami Dolphins NFL team and promotes the city’s Formula One grand prix, Relevent is in expansion mode. It is building a team in Switzerland and stepping up its presence in Europe as it targets more media rights deals in football.

Sillman is also on the hunt for acquisitions that could help it expand. Its targets include sports media, content assets, brands and live events. He says he wants to establish the company as a “bridge” that works both ways, seeking partnerships with American leagues as they target international expansion.

The rise of the 34-year-old Sillman in the world of sport started when he was still a student at Michigan Ross, the business school named after Relevent’s owner. While there, Sillman emailed Ross for guidance about his business advising professional athletes and the pair struck up a rapport.

Sillman eventually sold the business and joined the billionaire’s venture arm in 2014 before becoming chief executive of Relevent three years later at the age of 28. He has also been Ross’s son-in-law since 2020.

“I know him and I work with him and he works hours and hours and hours,” said Ferran Soriano, chief executive of City Football Group, which owns Premier League champions Manchester City.

Relevent’s pitch to link the US and European football predates Sillman. That vision came from co-founder Charlie Stillitano, a former general manager of the New York-based MLS side that would later become the New York Red Bulls. Stillitano, who has since left the company, used his decades of experience in football to build Relevent up in the sport.

But Sillman’s standing in the football establishment was boosted during the tumult of the European Super League in April 2021, when a dozen elite clubs sought to form a breakaway competition. Their mission failed after a backlash from fans and policymakers, but Sillman’s opposition to the project helped him to win friends in the industry.

“I was in touch with him back then after it happened and it was quite amazing to see that a person who lives in a country of closed leagues clearly understands what it means to have a pyramid and why European football is so successful,” said Čeferin.

Relevent brokered $2bn worth of media rights deals for La Liga in the US, Canada and Mexico in 2021, a welcome bonanza as football fought to recover from its Covid losses.

The following year the company brokered a deal in which Paramount agreed to pay a $1.5bn over six years to screen Uefa’s European club competitions in the US. At $250mn a season, it was 2.5 times higher than before.

“For decades people have been talking about soccer becoming more popular on television in the US, and it’s really starting to happen, it’s happening,” Sean McManus, chair of Paramount’s CBS Sports told the FT.

As more viewers tune in, Soriano of City Football Group, which also owns New York City FC, believes that the business opening in the US for the football industry is “gigantic” and growing rapidly.

“In the US there’ll be a major global soccer event every year. When you say update the size of the opportunity, multiply it by 10, because it’s already big,” he said. “That’s the opportunity for companies like Relevent.”

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