Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain headed to Charlotte

April 28, 2015

Last summer, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” washed over uptown Charlotte as Liverpool FC took on AC Milan. For an encore, think “Blue is the Colour” as the soon-to-be Premier League champions, Chelsea FC, face Paris Saint-Germain FC in a soccer friendly July 25 at Bank of America Stadium.
This means three international matches coming to Charlotte in 2015.

Earlier, the city and the Carolina Panthers announced a soccer doubleheader coming July 15. The two games, part of the CONCACAF Gold Cup, are Cuba against Guatemala and Trinidad facing Mexico.

The privately owned NFL stadium has hosted soccer matches off and on since opening in 1996, but a five-year renovation started last year and paid for mostly by local taxpayers led to the city and the Panthers making a more aggressive effort to bring the other kind of football to uptown.

Liverpool-AC Milan almost filled the 74,000-seat stadium, with attendance of 69,364 for the Charlotte match. Ticket prices ranged from $40 to $300. Prices have not been disclosed for the 2015 matches, but should be soon. A press conference with representatives from Chelsea and PSG will be held at BofA Stadium on Wednesday afternoon.

Relevent Sports, the company that brought the Liverpool-AC Milan match here last year, is also the promoter for Chelsea-PSG. Stephen Ross, a prominent New York real estate developer and owner of the NFL Miami Dolphins, is co-owner of Relevent. The company runs the International Champions Cup, a midsummer international soccer tournament started in 2013. Six U.S. cities hosted matches during the first International Champions Cup; it grew to 13 last year. In 2015, the U.S. tournament returns, and separate events run by Relevent have been added in China and Australia.

“After last year’s extremely successful International Champions Cup match between Liverpool and A.C. Milan, bringing another contest to the Queen City was a no-brainer,” said Charlie Stillitano, chairman of Relevent Sports. “More than 69,000 fans attended the sold-out contest, demonstrating the city’s strong passion for world-class soccer. We are incredibly thankful to both the Panthers and the (Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority) who have been generous and helpful in bringing another game to the city. Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea are two of the best and most well-respected teams in the world, and we expect another raucous crowd at Bank of America Stadium.”

Chelsea and PSG bring plenty of star power and tradition to Charlotte. Jose Mourinho, considered by most soccer analysts as one of the top managers in the game’s history, is in his second stint leading Chelsea and will have likely added another season championship to his résumé by the time he gets here.

During his career, Mourinho has won championships in each of the top European leagues. Eden Hazard, Oscar, Diego Costa and John Terry are the top Chelsea players. PSG boasts a roster that features midfielders Javier Pastore and Marco Verratti as well as striker Zlaton Ibrahimovic and forward Edinson Cavani.

All 17 matches, including Chelsea-PSG in Charlotte, will air on Fox Sports. The 10 teams in the International Champions Cup include Manchester United, FC Barcelona and FC Porto in addition to Chelsea and PSG. Three Major League Soccer teams are also participating: the New York Red Bulls, Los Angeles Galaxy and San Jose Earthquakes.

Charlotte, like the rest of the country, has embraced soccer more and more during the past decade. This year, a new minor-league franchise, the Independence, debuted here. Team executives have said their goal (every soccer story has to yield to this stupid-pun temptation at least once) is to eventually land a Major League Soccer franchise.

Ron Kimble, the deputy city manager, during a trip to Barcelona last fall, met with team executives from FC Barcelona to discuss a possible exhibition match here in 2016. FC Barcelona is one of the most popular and successful clubs in the world, led by star players Leo Messi and Neymar.

City government receives five rent-free dates each year at the stadium as part of the agreement by City Council committing $87.5 million to the Panthers for stadium renovations and related expenses. The agreement started last year when the first installment of city money helped the team pay for $65 million worth of upgrades. New scoreboards, wraparound ribbon-graphics screens, a new sound system and escalators to the upper level were all added between January and July 2014.

This year, the team is renovating luxury suites and adding a private membership club, with those costs borne by the Panthers alone. In 2016 and 2018, the city will pay the rest of its $75 million commitment for stadium changes. (The remaining $12.5 million from taxpayers goes to game-day traffic expenses and a portion of maintenance costs.) Liverpool-AC Milan added $8.3 million of spending to the area from fans staying at hotels, eating and drinking around town and shopping, according to the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority.

Since tourism taxes are being used for the stadium renovations, the city and the Panthers agreed on the free dates to help repay the industry bearing the brunt of the costs. The NFL franchise also agreed to play at least six more years in the uptown stadium as part of the agreement.

This year, at least three of the five available free dates will be used: the soccer doubleheader July 15, Chelsea-PSG on July 25 and the Belk Bowl college football game in December. In 2014, two rent-free dates were used by the city (Liverpool-AC Milan and the bowl game). A season-opening college football matchup between North Carolina and South Carolina was negotiated prior to the rent-free agreement.

This article ran in the Charlotte Business Journal on April 28, 2015.