One after another, the executives from some of the world’s biggest sports agencies filed into a basement auditorium at the headquarters of European soccer’s governing body. On their way in, they passed replicas of some of the biggest trophies in the sport, a pointed reminder of why they had traveled to UEFA’s offices on the banks of Lake Geneva to offer large sums of money to some of soccer’s most powerful officials.
On offer that week in November? A rare chance, the first in 20 years, to bid for the rights to one of the most valuable properties in sports: the Champions League.
For two days, groups armed with slides and projectors pitched a group that included not only UEFA’s leadership but also representatives of Europe’s top clubs, who, for the first time, were allowed to participate in the process. After three rounds of bidding, UEFA and the European Club Association, its partner in the venture, picked the winners.
The global rights went to the Europeans’ longtime partner, TEAM Marketing, which now controls the rights for a three-year cycle from 2024 to 2027, the first in an expanded Champions League that will include more matches.
The bigger surprise came in what they will not control: the lucrative rights to the United States. Those were won by Relevent Sports Group, the marketing company backed by the Miami Dolphins owner Stephen M. Ross. Relevent prevailed after it said it could guarantee at least $250 million for the rights in the United States, about $100 million more than UEFA’s competitions currently deliver there.
Relevent and rivals like Endeavor-owned IMG, Octagon and Infront Sports & Media also bid for the global rights, which are estimated to be worth as much as $5 billion per season. TEAM, according to people familiar with the bidding process, was selected because it agreed to lower its commission on selling the rights and because it has a dedicated staff on hand to begin sales immediately.
An official announcement of the new rights agreements will be made next week, after a meeting of UEFA’s board. The European Club Association’s board was informed of the selections at a meeting in Munich on Wednesday.
UEFA, Relevent and TEAM all declined to comment on the deals, which came as part of an unexpected bit of collaboration between European officials and some of the continent’s biggest clubs only months after some of those same teams attempted to form a breakaway Super League.
After two decades of frustration, and with clubs growing increasingly concerned that money was being left on the table, the club association finally pushed UEFA to take the rights to market. In the past, the Champions League agreement had consistency rolled over into a new one with TEAM, a company that has historically had just one client: UEFA.
Nasser al-Khelaifi, the chairman of the E.C.A. and the president of the French club Paris St.-Germain, and the E.C.A.’s chief executive, Charlie Marshall, joined a UEFA contingent led by UEFA’s president, Aleksander Ceferin, to hear the pitches late last year.
A final decision on the winners was made after a meeting Jan. 25 of their new joint venture company, UCC S.A. That company will grow in importance in the coming months: A new management team set to be installed that could reduce the need for intermediaries like TEAM and Relevent, and give clubs an even greater say over the commercial operations of competitions that produce hundreds of billions of dollars in television and sponsorship revenue every season.
For Relevent, the deal is the latest chapter in its efforts to pivot toward a new strategy geared around selling premium soccer rights after a decade in which its highest-profile asset was the loss-making International Champions Cup, an annual off-season tournament that matched top European clubs in exhibition games in North America, Europe and Asia. But it also comes amid a significant bit of price escalation for soccer rights in the United States; the Premier League recently agreed to a six-year deal with NBC worth almost $2 billion.
In 2018, Relevent signed a 15-year collaboration with Spain’s top league, an agreement that essentially turned the company into La Liga’s commercial operation for North America in exchange for a guarantee that it could generate business worth a minimum of $2 billion during the term of the contract. Three years later, Relevent brokered an eight-year, $1.4 billion rights agreement with ESPN for La Liga games, then got $600 million more from broadcasters in Mexico and Central America.
Now, its relationships with European soccer may only deepen. Relevent has been courting UEFA to add its name to its off-season tournament business, which has lost about $100 million since it was established in 2012.
With the Champions League deals in place, UEFA and the club association are likely to enter into a protracted period of wrangling over how the income from the rights sales will be distributed, with the largest teams likely to demand a greater share than they are currently receiving.