American Ownership Group Eyes Success at Venezia
August 01, 2016
VENICE IS ONE OF THE MOST BEAUTIFUL cities in the world. Millions of tourists flock there every year to take gondola rides on the canals and see sights such as the Ponte di Rialto and the Piazza San Marco.
But while Italy has a storied soccer history, Venice has never been a hotspot for calcio within the country.
That could be changing quickly, however, as an American ownership group led by New York native Joe Tacopina has ambitious plans for Venezia FC. Last year the club earned promotion from Serie D to Lega Pro, the third tier of the Italian hierarchy.
While that is still far away from anything resembling global significance, Tacopina’s plans are starting to take root and his goal is clear: to have Venice join the likes of Milan, Rome, Napes, and Turin as a center of Italian soccer.
“It’s not if it gets back to Serie A, it's when it gets back to Serie A,” Tacopina told American Soccer Now. “It's definitely a 'when.' I think this team has as high of a potential as any team really in Serie A, short of Juventus and Milan. That being said, I fully anticipate Venezia will be at the upper echelon of Italian soccer. It's not just a dream because I don't have dreams, I have goals.
"We've already accomplished the first step in that goal. The first step was putting a team and organization together to win our league [Serie D] for promotion. That's the first step. We had a celebration for one day and now it’s back to work because we have a lot of work to do.”
There is indeed a lot of work ahead. Venezia FC is a club with a long history that has had ups but far more downs over the past few decades. The original club was founded in 1907 and despite a Coppa Italia triumph in 1941, it was a typical yo-yo club that bounced between Serie A and B. In 2002, however, it was relegated out of Serie A and fell into disrepair. It was declared bankrupt three times—in 2005, 2009, and 2015—with each time it having to restart as a club at a very low level within Italy’s football pyramid.
Hiring a top flight staff
Tacopina came in with an American ownership group in 2015 that took control after the third bankruptcy. Tacopina’s approach has been to run the team as if it were a Serie A team with a staff of people that is almost ridiculously overqualified for a fourth-tier club.
The architect of Tacopina’s plans is Giorgio Perinetti. Now 65, Perinetti has a long history in Serie A, including a stint running the academy at Juventus as well as winning two Scudettos with Napoli and Roma. The team’s new head coach is former Milan manager Filippo Inzaghi who also happens to rank sixth in Italy's all-tine goal scoring list.
“The biggest thing I did overall was bring in Giorgio Perinetti,” Tacopina said. “No one believed he was going to come down to Serie D to start a project with me. No one. But he believed in me and he believed in my project. He believed this is a legacy move for him. With him on board, I sleep a lot better.
"It’s not just about an influx of cash. We obviously had the highest payroll in all of Serie D and I am sure we will be on top of Lega Pro. But it’s building from the bottom up. Giorgio was an expert in the youth sector.”
Tacopina himself brings impressive qualifications to the table. Growing up he was an ice hockey player who earned a scholarship to Skidmore College. His father is from Italy, however, and he instilled a strong love for soccer in the days when Paolo Maldini, Roberto Baggio, and Franco Baresi were important figures.
In 2011, Tacopina was a minority owner, board member, and the Vice President of AS Roma where he was a very active manager. After four years, he became the president of Bologna FC for one year before taking over Venezia.
“As I listened to the President speak, I reflected on the fact that if our players will have half the desire of our president, we will arrive at the top,” Inzaghi said. “These days I received many proposals, also from China, but I had no doubt in choosing Venezia because it does not matter the category, but a winning project. We have a president of a Champions League caliber, here it is like being in Serie A. I will give it my all, I am excited as my first day of school and as excited as when I had coached Milan.”
Perinetti echoed the comments of the coach citing the freedom he has to do his job.
"For this, everything is perfect," Perinetti said recently. "The ownership conveys great enthusiasm and values, and at the same time conveys great tranquility and autonomy with a respect for roles. It is giving me a freedom that many of my colleagues envy. If all foreign investors are like that, then they are welcome."
Riding the waves of change in Serie A
Hiring a big name staff is one thing. Building essentially a new club while starting at an amateur level and then taking it to the top of one of the world’s most powerful leagues is another matter entirely. The English Championship is a league full of big-spending optimists chasing the dream of buying a small club and taking it to the top of the Premier League. Almost all of these dreams fall shot.
Why is Venezia going to be any different?
Understanding the difference requires a deep understanding of Italian soccer. Despite the recent success of the Italian national team at the European Championships, the past decade has been bleak for Italian soccer since it won the 2006 World Cup. The Azzuri have not advanced out of the group stages at the last two World Cups. The biggest problem, however, is at the club level as Serie A teams have fallen behind the Premier League, the Bundesliga, and La Liga both in terms of value and European success on the field.
“Here's the magic elixir for me: The opportunities in Italian soccer are plentiful because the league is in despair,” Tacopina said. “They are the most undervalued properties in sport, without question. I am not just talking about soccer, but in all of sport. By way of example, we purchased AS Roma in 2011 for an enterprise value of about €130 million. That team was already a Champions League team with a global brand. With that same business model I used at Bologna and I am now using at Venezia, after three years the team was worth over €400 million.
"That’s a pretty good return on investment.”
The accusations of the poor financial condition of Italian soccer are well founded. Recently Udinese opened its own stadium in Northeast Italy. The most shocking aspect of this development is that the club became just the third Serie A club, along with Juventus and Sassuolo, to own its own stadium. Udinese's new ground cost around €35 million, which is in the ballpark of what what the Columbus Crew spent on its stadium in 1999 (adjusted for inflation).
Adding to the problem of a lack of stadium ownership, the average Serie A facilities are more than 60 years old. Prior to hosting the World Cup in Italy, many venue owners tried to upgrade facilities and while that worked temporarily, that was over 25 years ago and the polish has worn off. Worse, teams incurred massive debt as a result of these renovations.
Many Italian teams are simply not taking advantage of revenue streams that exist in other countries. There should be major changes on the way as Credito Sportivo, an Italian bank, has plans to give the Italian Football Federation €80 million to improve the stadium conditions in Italy.
That said, Venezia is further along in its plans and has the opportunity to leapfrog many teams in the country.
“Speaking generally, the top Italian clubs have fallen behind at least to some extent,” said new CEO Ted Philipakos. “It’s not because they don’t know what they’re doing or have a rich history or that they’re country doesn’t produce talent. It’s purely economics. Controlling your facility and maximizing your revenue streams is an important part. That’s one area in which the major Italian teams could improve. That’s already underway.
"Ultimately, we are going to get back to Serie A. We have the resources, we have the organization, and a fantastic sporting director. We have a core in place.”
Tacopina also pointed out the obvious.
“The crazy part when you think about it: Why would a team like AS Roma in the world’s sport and one of the most recognizable teams in the world be trading at €130 million when a team like the L.A. Clippers in the NBA, who have never won anything nor come close and will always be the second team of Los Angeles, don’t even own their own arena and they sell for $2 billion?"
I't because AS Roma has "been mismanaged for so many years—they’ve been neglected from a management standpoint. It’s obvious with a good management structure in place, good ownership throughout the league, with the right business model, Italian so ccer can rise to the top again—just like the Premier League was 15 years ago on the verge of despair. Now they’re a moneymaking machine. The Italian league can do the same.”
Stadio Pierluigi Penzo
As Venezia FC attempts to join the race to modernize its club and rise toward Serie A, there is the issue of its current ground, Stadio Pierluigi Penzo (commonly referred to as “The Penzo”). There is a lot of sentimental attachment to the Penzo, which opened in 1913 and is the second oldest stadium in Italy.
Part of its charm is that the team actually plays on the island and has an unbelievably picturesque view of the city’s iconic sights. Players and fans typically arrive by boats which can park nearby. For the team’s fans, there is an emotional attachment to the facility.
The problem, however, is that The Penzo has become run down over the years. At one point it fit just under 20,000 fans but now its capacity is listed at just 7,450. Expansion is simply not possible due to limited space.
For Venezia to modernize, it will have to relocate off the island—its home for more than a century. These days in Italy, it is a major story whenever a team opens a new stadium for itself. Right now, the plan is for Venezia to build, own, and operate a 28,000-seat state-of-the-art stadium complex located on the mainland near the city’s airport.
That would give Venezia better control over its gameday revenue—a novelty in Serie A. The cost will be high but demolishing the Penzo also removes a chunk of history.
“Stadio Pierluigi Penzo, as charming as it might be on the water, it’s really cumbersome to get from the other end of the island,” Tacopina said. “It has surpassed its usefulness. For whatever romance we might lose moving away from the Penzo, we’ll more than make it up with a fan experience that will be second to none in Italy and Europe. We will maintain the Venice flair and a tie to the Penzo. I made that clear.
"Let’s put it this way: The romance isn’t bringing fans to the games in droves. Romance isn’t making people want to be at the Penzo. We’ll be sad for a few days, I’m sure. But in the end the fan experience at the new stadium will be incredible.”
A Global Brand?
In addition to the staff and the stadium, will there be enough demand to turn Venezia into the team Tacopina and his partners want?
After all, most people in Italy already have favorite teams they support, and many will resist changing allegiances to an upstart Venice team. Tacopina cites the city’s unbelievable tourism numbers and notes that he has already partnered with the massive hotel association of Venice to promote the team. But will tourists looking for the enchantment of the Grand Canal be compelled to travel inland for a soccer game?
There is some indication that a team in Venice might be able to find the support. The media in Italy praised Tacopina’s takeover of Venice and by his account there were more than 350 journalists there to cover his initial press conference (compared with 50 that attended his Bologna announcement). Leading publication Gazzetta dello Sport gave Tacopina a rare front page headline when his Venezia project was announced.
“Venezia was attractive to me because it was an instant global brand,” Tacopina said. “When I was looking at other teams and a lot of teams offered us, I would not be eager to buy a small provincial team because the league isn’t structured to make it worthwhile to investors to run a sound business model with those teams. But with a team like Venezia, you’re instantly a global brand. To me, you have a city with 30 million tourists a year and the opportunity is there to tap into the tourist marke.
"We have so many things we’re doing and there is a buzz about the team again. People are very interested and the stadium is on its way.”
In his office in New York, Tacopina also noted that the world’s best clubs, like Bayern Munich and Barcelona, now have offices in the city as well as in Asia. He has already met with clubs to plan a long-term goal of having offices for Venezia in these cities as well to “build the brand” and have ongoing relationships with sponsors.
“If you want to have a global brand, you need to have a global footprint,” he said. “If you want that footprint, you have to have offices in North America, or New York specifically, and Asia. That’s our long-term plans.”
He also hopes to have an American presence on the team, so long as he meets the high standards of Perinetti. Michael Bradley played for his team on Roma but at Venice, he clearly sees the advantage of having an American player in terms of that global brand.
“From a marketing perspective, if Giorgio is OK with the talent, I would love to have an American player and an Asian player,” Tacopina. “We’d end up selling more jerseys than we produce. When you combine those things, 40% of the tourists in Venice are American and 40% are from Asia. That’s a big population of tourists that go to Venice.
"If you have a beautiful city name on the front of the jersey and a North American or Asian name on the back, that makes for a pretty promising piece of merchandise…we definitely from a marketing perspective wouldn’t be foolish.”
The ambition is bold and Tacopina insists next year is “crucial” to earn a second straight promotion and be in Serie B for the 2017-18 season. Perinetti told him getting out of Serie D was one of the hardest hurdles due to the poor venues and the tight restrictions that mandate that a minimum number of youth players must be on the field at all times. Now in Lega Pro, Venezia will have momentum.
Tacopina is bullish and optimistic. What he is proposing is rare but his project is coming along at the unique time where he can take advantage of needed changes that are coming in Italy.
It's still too early to know where this Veneiza project will end and if being near the top of Serie A is attainable. But it is clear that Italian soccer needs people like Tacopina who want to make the Italian league dominant again, manage teams properly, and invest money in desperately needed new infrastructure that can last a generation.
“It was really difficult in our first year as the new ownership group,” Tacopina said. “I made a lot of promises and I kept them all. Next year I want to go right up from Serie B to Serie A but if we have to hang out for a few years in Serie B as we ramp up our talent pool and get ready for Serie A.... Once we get up to Serie A, I don’t ever want to go back. I don’t want to do that yo-yo thing.
"Next year I know what we’re doing. We’re spending. I don’t ever want there to be a situation where in our journey to Serie A, we’re not making it because we didn’t have funding or the wherewithal to field the best team possible.
“We have so much to do, it is a matter of time and priority. Unlike these other projects, where you came in and there were so many things set in stone. You had to just deal with them and tweak them. Here we are molding it with our own hands. It’s great.”