For many Americans, soccer is an ultimately illusive idea, a foreign phenomenon that the whole world has seemingly bought into and that has left America unaltered.
Citizens across the country watch the unmatched excitement surrounding events such as the World Cup or Champions League Final year after year with indifference. They see mega-stars such as Christian Ronaldo and Lionel Messi — two of the most popular human beings on planet Earth — and shrug off their fame. Enjoying soccer in America has been a niche pastime that has never been taken seriously.
But for some reason, that’s all begun to change.
For the first time in modern American history, soccer has gained real, tangible momentum in terms of its expansion into America’s golden sports market. All of a sudden, stadiums from Atlanta to Seattle are selling out Major League Soccer (MLS) games and the casual American sports fan is giving soccer a shot.
And helping lead the charge of spreading the world’s most popular sport into America is Michigan alum Daniel Sillman.
Sillman, only 29, is currently serving as the Chief Executive Officer of Relevent Sports — a division of the live entertainment investment firm RSE Ventures that focuses on expanding soccer’s influence into the US and other untapped markets. Most notably, Relevent Sports hosts the International Champions Cup (ICC) every summer. The ICC serves as the flagship program for Relevent, seeking to entice American fans with the spectacle of European soccer and its stars.
“We’re seizing the opportunity in the marketplace,” Sillman said, “We see soccer as the biggest sport in the world and growing like crazy in America and Asia, and we feel that we’re best positioned to take advantage of the growth of the sport.”
While currently embracing the growth of the sport, Sillman’s journey did not begin in soccer. It didn’t even truly begin in sports.
At Michigan, Sillman studied finance at the Ross School of Business where he honed his analytic mind and eventually started his own business — Compass Management Group. Compass was a multi-family office for athletes and entertainers whose services ranged from accounting to estate and insurance planning.
Sillman’s staked interest in establishing Compass began through his relationship with former Wolverine football player and current Philadelphia Eagle Brandon Graham. Sillman began the business to help Graham out financially and use his newfound finance knowledge and increase his stock as an executive.
Before he knew it, Sillman’s company had taken off and was soon acquired by multi-family and business management firm FFO. As for Sillman, the Michigan grad served as an advisor for FFO while transitioning to his new position of Director of Business Development at RSE Ventures.
Throughout his short, yet storied career, Sillman has primarily operated in financial management, but he has found himself more and more entrenched in the realm of sports due to the clientele of his businesses.
While sports and athlete management have seemingly been the thread tying Sillman’s career together, another factor has blatantly helped the young executive achieve his success — the Michigan alumni network. After all, Sillman’s career did truly kick off due in part to his relationship with Graham.
Now, Sillman finds himself working for another Michigan man — legendary real estate developer and namesake of the business school Stephen Ross.
Ross owns RSE Ventures and continues to make deep investments into Sillman’s family of companies and is one of the early backers of soccer’s expansion into the states.
“The relationships I built at Ross School of Business are those that have really helped me my entire career,” Sillman said. “Ultimately, now I work for Steve Ross, so the alumni of the university have been relationships that I’ve been able to build through my experience at Ross and ultimately led to my career opportunities beyond selling my own business, but going to work at RSE Ventures, and now as the CEO of Relevent, working with so many Michigan alums has been a huge piece of my life.”
Now, Sillman is looking to use those connections and spin a miracle in soccer and other live entertainment opportunities in the states.
Beyond the men’s ICC, which most recently brought Manchester United and Liverpool to Michigan Stadium in front of a 100,000-plus person crowd, Sillman and co. have recently expanded into a women’s ICC, an ICC Future’s event at Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Fla. and an entertainment property called House of Soccer meant to inspire youth excitement around the sport.
While Sillman recognizes that these programs are undoubtedly a long-term investment into America’s future sporting landscape, he and his company are already seeing promising returns. By Sillman’s reports, Relevent affiliated sporting events garnered 140 million views last year and are on pace to reach as many as 160 million this year. Over a million people have attended their events in the past and with North America set to host the World Cup in 2026, Sillman firmly believes the sport is here to stay.
“To say, ‘Will it work?’ you gotta open your eyes because you have MLS which has been extremely successful,” Sillman said. “If you go study the media rights landscaping in North America, the English Premier League sold their media rights for $180 million to NBC which is double their last right’s sale.”
With a budding MLS and international stars coming to play stateside, it’s clear that America has the sporting infrastructure needed to support the world’s most popular sport. Now the question is whether Americans are ready to make the switch.
So how exactly do you make the pitch to the general public that soccer is worth the time?
Sillman says there exists a simple answer — storytelling.
“We do a lot to work with the clubs to tell the amazing stories behind the history of their formation and the success that they’ve had,” Sillman said. “We try to tell the stories of the mythical-like players and their stories and where they come from and how they’ve achieved success, and it’s our job to provide amazing entertainment experiences which is why we’ve developed House of Soccer which is very similar to NBA House of Hoops or NFL Experience at the Super Bowl, and we’ve expanded our investment off the pitch into entertainment properties that have really engaged the communities that we’re bringing to games so that people can participate with soccer.”
In the end, soccer still has a long way to go in dethroning the power four of football, basketball, baseball and hockey in America, but Sillman and Relevent seem to be taking all the right steps. They’re capitalizing off big spectacle events such as the World Cup, starting grass roots initiatives with kids camps and programs and are even organizing celebrity soccer games with such superstars as Drake and Draymond Green.
If currents trends hold and Sillman and Relevent, the silent workhorses of American soccer, continue their steadfast investment in the sport, it’s hard to imagine anything standing in their way.