U.S. Soccer wins federal court battle with Relevent Sports

U.S. Soccer won another battle in Federal court when the Southern District of New York dismissed the case brought by the Relevent Sports Group.

The court granted U.S. Soccer's motion that any tort claim Relevent had against U.S. Soccer should go to arbitration. It also dismissed Relevent's antitrust claim.

The Relevent Sports Group sued U.S. Soccer over the federation's policy for sanctioning international matches, arguing it violated federal antitrust law by conspiring with FIFA to prevent clubs from playing international matches in the United States if they have not been sanctioned by U.S. Soccer.

It argued the sanctioning fees the federation charges -- it states it paid the federation $20.5 million over the last six years -- amounted to a restraint on trade and its actions were intended to protect Soccer United Marketing, U.S. Soccer's marketing agency that is owned by MLS owners.

Relevent has organized the International Champions Cup and other international friendly matches, but the issue came to a head when it signed an agreement with  LaLiga, which was pushing to play in official league matches in the United States. When sanctioning was not forthcoming from U.S. Soccer for an Ecuadoran league match -- Barcelona SC vs. Guayaquil City FC -- at Miami's Hard Rock Stadium, Relevent sued in New York state court to compel the federation to sanction the game.

Arbitration required for match agents. The court's decision on arbitration was not unexpected. U.S. Soccer argued Relevent was bound by the terms of the FIFA Match Agent Regulations, which require that any “dispute between a match agent and a national association” be submitted to the “FIFA Players’ Status Committee for consideration and resolution.”

The court referred to another case involving U.S. Soccer, the six-year antitrust suit brought by the creditors of ChampionsWorld, the organization formed by soccer executive Charlie Stillitano to promote international matches in North America. Stillitano is the executive chairman of Relevent Sports.

Stillitano was ChampionsWorld's FIFA-licensed match agent and served as Relevent's FIFA-licensed match agent for the Ecuadoran league match it hoped to organize.

No direct evidence of anti-competitive conspiracy. On the issue of the antitrust claim, the court found no direct evidence of an unlawful agreement between U.S. Soccer and FIFA -- U.S. Soccer’s statement that it is “required to adhere” to FIFA’s policies wasn't good enough -- and it found no evidence U.S. Soccer had conspired with other confederations, federations, leagues, or teams.

The court went on to add that even if Relevent had a valid claim, any decision would be futile because it had no jurisdiction over FIFA to prevent it from issuing sanctions to teams and players taking part in unsanctioned matches.

The court will allow Relevent to amend its antitrust complaint, but it must allege facts sufficient to show the court has personal jurisdiction over FIFA or join FIFA in the lawsuit.

Latham & Watkins vs. Winston & Strawn. The case was the third that Latham & Watkins, U.S. Soccer's longtime law firm has won against Jeffrey Kessler and Winston & Strawn. In May, U.S. Soccer was awarded partial summary judgment in the equal pay claim filed by members of the U.S. women's national team, who have appealed. In 2018, the denial of a request for a preliminary injunction in the antitrust suite filed by the NASL against U.S. Soccer was affirmed on appeal in the Second Circuit. (The case is still in the pre-trial stage.)

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