More than 16 months after a U.S. District Court judge threw out a lawsuit challenging the authority of FIFA and U.S. Soccer to regulate the soccer market, the case has been revived.
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Relevent Sports (owned by Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross) could move forward with its case and remanded it to the District Court.
Relevent sued U.S. Soccer over its longstanding ban on foreign teams playing official league or cup matches in the United States. In October 2018, the FIFA Council issued a directive prohibiting the staging of official games outside of the participant league's home country, emphasizing "the sporting principle that official league matches must be played within the territory of the respective member association.”
In March 2019, Relevent, which organized the lucrative summer International Champions Cup men's friendly series for many years, attempted to organize an Ecuadoran league match — Barcelona vs. Guayaquil City — at Miami's Hard Rock Stadium. Earlier plans to host a LaLiga regular-season contest in Miami between LaLiga's Barcelona and Girona had also fallen apart.
In July 2021, U.S. district court judge Valerie Caproni ruled that U.S. Soccer had not conspired with FIFA to block the organization of competitive league and cup matches involving foreign clubs in the United States. A year earlier, Caproni granted U.S. Soccer's motion that any tort claim Relevent had against U.S. Soccer should go to arbitration but gave Relevent the opportunity to add FIFA as a defendant and amend its antitrust complaint.
The issue addressed by the Court of Appeals dealt with Relevent's original pleadings necessary to survive a motion to dismiss — did Relevent have to allege an "agreement to agree" to restrict where teams play or was the policy itself sufficient for the case to more forward? Caproni rejected Relevent's argument that the policy itself constituted "direct evidence” of concerted action.
The Court of Appeals found FIFA's members all agreed to adhere to its policies when they joined the organization, and that was enough. “Contrary to the district court’s conclusion, there is no need for Relevent to allege a prior ‘agreement to agree’ or conspiracy to adopt the policy," the three-judge panel wrote.
Still to be decided by Caproni back in District Court will be whether the policy is indeed an antitrust violation.
Since the lawsuit was filed, the U.S. Department of Justice's antitrust unit weighed in, advising U.S. Soccer and FIFA in a letter sent on March 16, 2020, that a policy of dividing up geographic markets was prohibited, sports leagues and organizations were not immune from U.S. antitrust laws, and the matter did not fall into any established exemptions like how rules of the game are applied.
FIFA then tried to back track, arguing its statement in October 2018 was "guidance" or a merely a non-binding “sporting principle,” not a "new policy or a change to FIFA’s rules." (Caproni, in her ruling, termed the FIFA Council's announcement a "policy" prohibiting the staging of official games outside the participants’ home territory” and that “all National Associations, leagues, clubs, and players must comply with FIFA directives.”)
The Department of Justice filed an amicus brief in favor of Relevent's appeal in October 2021.