DOJ warns FIFA over league match ban in U.S.

Published on: 01 September 2020

The U.S. Justice Department has entered into a sports dispute involving the company of a longtime friend of President Donald Trump, warning FIFA that a prohibition against staging league matches internationally could violate American antitrust laws.

Relevent Sports, controlled by Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, sued the U.S. Soccer Federation in September 2019 for failing to sanction a proposed Spanish league match between Barcelona and Girona in Miami Gardens, Florida.

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U.S. District Judge Valerie Caproni in Manhattan dismissed an antitrust claim by Relevent Sports in July and gave the company until Tuesday to refile the suit or take its interference claim case to arbitration. The letter from the Justice Department was included in a filing by Relevent on Tuesday seeking permission to amend its complaint by adding FIFA, soccer's governing body, as a defendant.

"Market allocation is a per se violation of the U.S. antitrust laws," Makan Delrahim, the assistant attorney general who heads the Justice Department's antitrust division, wrote in a letter to FIFA president Gianni Infantino and USSF Cindy Parlow Cone. "Sports organizations are not categorically immune from liability under the rules. In particular, they apply to FIFA and its affiliates, including the United States Soccer Federation, in the same manner that they apply to any other organization whose activities substantially affect the United States. We specifically are concerned that FIFA could violate U.S. antitrust laws by restricting the territory in which teams can play league games."

The Justice Department has obtained a series of guilty pleas from soccer officials along with several convictions during the past five years as part of its investigation into corruption in the sport. FIFA has maintained it is a victim and was harmed by corrupt individuals and companies.

While U.S. leagues have embraced moving regular-season games internationally, soccer generally has restricted its international club initiatives to exhibitions along with selected cup matches.

Relevent initially sued in New York Supreme Court after the USSF refused to sanction a 2018-19 match between Ecuador's Barcelona and Guayaquil at Miami Gardens.

The USSF cited an Oct. 26, 2018, announcement by FIFA: "Consistent with the opinion expressed by the football stakeholders committee, the council emphasized the sporting principle that official league matches must be played within the territory of the respective member association."

MLS commissioner Don Garber and then USSF president Carlos Cordeiro were on the stakeholders committee, and former USSF president Sunil Gulati is a member of the ruling council.

Relevent alleges the stakeholders committee on Feb. 27 recommended the policy against international league matches be added to FIFA's statutes.

Relevent withdrew its state court suit and filed this latest action in federal court, citing antitrust law.

Delrahim wrote the department is raising the concerns to protect competition "for the benefit of American consumers and soccer players."

"Now that the government has weighed in, we call upon FIFA and USSF to join us in opening up our borders to the world's game," Relevent Sports Group CEO Daniel Sillman said in a statement.

Caproni wrote that Relevent must either add FIFA to its lawsuit, show the court has jurisdiction over FIFA when it is not a party to the suit, or show cause why the case should not be dismissed.

Ross hosted a fundraiser last year for Trump's re-election campaign. He told Fox Business in an interview last month that hasn't yet decided on his vote in the presidential election.

FIFA and the USSF did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Relevent is represented by Jeffrey Kessler, the lawyer retained by members of the U.S. women's national soccer team in their wage and gender discrimination lawsuit against the USSF.