By Jonathan Stempel
NEW YORK (Reuters) -A U.S. appeals court on Tuesday revived an antitrust lawsuit accusing FIFA and the U.S. Soccer Federation of illegally banning foreign clubs and leagues from staging official matches in the United States.
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan said Relevent Sports LLC, a sports promoter controlled by billionaire Miami Dolphins American football team owner Stephen Ross, plausibly alleged that the October 2018 ban unlawfully restricted competition.
“Adoption of the policy, combined with the member leagues’ prior agreement, by joining FIFA, to adhere to its policies, constitutes an agreement on the part of all–whether they voted in favor of the policy or not–to adhere to the announced restriction on competition,” Circuit Judge Raymond Lohier wrote.
The 3-0 decision raises the prospect that U.S. stadiums could eventually host regular season matches between foreign teams, which could compete for fans and sponsors now supporting FIFA-affiliated Major League Soccer.
Some European and South American teams play “friendly” matches in the United States, but not regular season matches.
FIFA, soccer’s world governing body with 211 member associations, announced its foreign match policy after Relevent arranged with Spain’s La Liga to host a regular season match between FC Barcelona and Girona FC in Miami.
Barcelona eventually withdrew, and Relevent sued after U.S. Soccer refused to sanction a May 2019 match in Miami between two Ecuadorean teams.
Relevent, based in New York, also operates the International Champions Cup.
In July 2021, U.S. District Judge Valerie Caproni found no proof of an illegal conspiracy to ban foreign matches.
She also said U.S. Soccer had good reasons to honor the ban, including the risk FIFA might exclude U.S. men from the World Cup.
Tuesday’s decision overturned that ruling, and returned the case to Caproni.
FIFA said it will review the decision. U.S. Soccer and its lawyers did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
In an email, Relevent’s lawyer Jeffrey Kessler said the company looked forward to pursuing its claims “to vindicate the ability of U.S. soccer fans to enjoy live play of some of the best soccer teams in the world.”
The case is Relevent Sports LLC v U.S. Soccer Federation Inc et al, 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 21-2088.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Additional reporting by Mike Scarcella; Editing by Daniel Wallis)