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the square ball week: virtual radrizzani

the square ball week: virtual radrizzani

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The last time we heard about a previously unknown Italian businessman selling his old interests so he could buy Leeds United, it sounded like an empty threat made in a fit of pique.

Massimo Cellino was going, moodily, to Miami. And if the Cagliari fans didn’t change their outlook by the time he got back, he’d just go and own Leeds United instead, and see what the Sardinian fans thought about that.

Cellino Vattene was what a lot of them thought. Fuck off Cellino.

Andrea Radrizzani’s sale of the majority of his stake in MP & Silva, the sports broadcasting rights management company he founded with Riccardo Silva in 2004 (the MP stands for Media Partners, also founded by Silva in 1999, where Radrizzani went to work after leaving university in Milan, with a degree in public relations, in 1999), didn’t have any of that petulance about it.

MP & Silva’s business, with Radrizzani as Group CEO, is buying up sports broadcasting rights (they own or have owned rights to broadcast several Serie A teams, the 2014 World Cup, the Premier League in 51 countries, Formula 1 in the Middle East and North Africa, the French Tennis Open and the NFL), marketing them to broadcasters for a profit, and working with league and tournament owners to improve the marketability (i.e. value) of their ‘productions’.

Shanghai Jin Xin, a venture investment fund founded by Chinese electronics company Baofeng and financial services firm Everbright were the purchasers, and the price of their 65% stake set MP & Silva’s value at £665m — over one billion of your US dollars; Radrizzani personally netted about £150m from the deal, as well as retaining a share of 35% of the company and being named president of Baofeng Sport International.

With Baofeng’s business focused on digital platforms and, in particular, the application of virtual reality to sport, and Radrizzani’s other recent venture, Eleven Sports, being an internet platform for broadcasting sport in several countries (Belgium, Singapore, Taiwan and more), it’s easy to assume that Radrizzani is aligning his interests around the next generation of sports broadcasting, putting himself at the forefront, geographically, technologically and financially, of the next growth areas in sports broadcasting rights, the business that has already made him a fortune.

Which does rather beg the question, what the hell does he want in Beeston? And why is working with Massimo Cellino? Is there a market in China for a virtual reality night down Fibre with Massimo, Terry and Verne?

It’s easy to see what Cellino gets out of this deal: out of the shit. As has been gone over, buying Leeds United would represent the biggest mistake of Cellino’s life, if not for the life he lived before he got to West Yorkshire. For from buying back Elland Road and propelling us to the Premier League in two seasons, Cellino has spent the best part of three years paddling desperately to stay afloat, making cutbacks here while being enormously wasteful there, making friends here (hi, Terry) and enemies there (hi, everybody else he’s ever worked with), and battling the great white whale of his no doubt vivid nightmares: GFH, and their placed, unconcerned possession of his balls in a vice.

After months trying to straighten all that out Cellino is knackered and out of cash, and the club has been properly on sale since the summer; not ad hoc, drinks at the hotel, Hey Darren Heckadoy I like you you wanna buy the football club for sale, but properly for sale through a structured (if convoluted) sale process. There was not a shortage of offers — some credible, some not; there never is.

That Cellino emerged from that process still owning half of Leeds United until the end of the season is the kind of lucky break it’s hard to think he deserves. It could be down to one of two things. The less likely, and the one we have to hope against, is that Cellino has seen a chance to stitch up an incomer the way GFH stitched up him. Get in some naive young investor, have them fund whatever Gerry Mink wants to do in the January transfer window, then if it ends in promotion to the Premier League, pull the tablecloth from under the dinner set and then nick all the cutlery. If it doesn’t, take the money and leave it to the new sucker to sort out.

More likely is that Radrizzani has, for whatever reason, been persuaded to allow Cellino to see how this season pans out. Cellino will, as he always does, be convinced that his lawyers will run rings around The FA and have his impending ban thrown out; that’ll leave him free to entertain in the president’s suite from now until May, when he can take the Championship trophy in his hands and do a lap of honour as thousands of white roses are thrown to him from the grateful peasants in the stands (who had an extra fiver added to their ticket, giving them a voucher for a quid’s worth of said roses and a plastic glass of warm prosseco).

To which Radrizzani, whose business partner Silva, has been said to be a neighbour of Cellino’s in Miami — which could mean either they share a district, a country club, or a back fence and cups of sugar — and who will have worked with Cellino when MP & Silva partnered on broadcasting deals with Cagliari (the friendly Dahlia TV Cup, in 2009, featured Cagliari and was launched with quotes from Radrizzani), may well have listened sympathetically, and been moved to do his old business pal a favour. Andrea will get what he wants at Leeds, now or later; so why not let ol’Massimo have his glory and leave with honour? Besides, The FA will probably ban him anyway.

Which brings us back, again, to the question, what does Andrea Radrizzani want with Leeds United?

Perhaps it’s to do with his Miami partner, Riccardo Silva. Silva is four years older than Radrizzani and has a much higher profile; his family own a hundred year old chemicals business, he’s an art collector who owns Warhols and Quinns, and with his wife Tatiana, he hosted a dinner last January to celebrate the expansion of Miami’s Bass Museum of Art. He owns MP Milan, MP Paris and MP Miami, agencies managing celebrities and models.

In April 2016 he launched Miami FC in the NASL, a brand new club co-owned by Paolo Maldini. And when they say brand new, they mean it; the story goes that friends suggested Silva should start a team in April 2015; the club was unveiled in May, had a stadium by October and began playing in April. The head coach is Alessandro Nesta, kits are by Macron. An article in the Telegraph contrasted that with David Beckham’s MSL Miami franchise; begun in 2013, it’ll play in 2018 at the earliest.

Silva told the Telegraph the project was about passion; it has to be, as he can’t be there every day while also running MP & Silva. But it has potential for growth — especially if Beckham can get his team up and running, and generate interest and rivalry — and growth is MP & Silva’s business. “It’s very long term — I did it thinking about the next 10 or 20 years,” he said.

Silva also said, “I never would have done it in Europe”; he prefers US style presentation, and more importantly, there isn’t the opportunity for growth that you get in the new soccer frontier of Miami. “Soccer is already huge [in Europe] and there isn’t this big potential. In the US you can start with something small and have a big growth potential,” he said.

But what if you weren’t Riccardo Silva, but were Andrea Radrizzani; four years younger, without your name on the shingle, you don’t own the art or the restaurants or hang with Maldini. But you’ve seen the kick your partner is getting out of running a football club, and like him you can see the growth potential; how all that experience helping league and tournament owners, and all those contacts with sports people and broadcasters all over the world, can be put to practical use on your own venture, your own club.

And while clubs in Europe might not have the growth potential they have in an ‘immature’ market like the USA, what if you could find an underperforming team property on the fringes of one of the world’s best performing league properties, the Premier League? And what if that already lucrative property had just begun to expand into a territory where enormous sums of government money are being spent to establish football as a passion for an enormous captive audience, like China?

Personal meets professional, and creates the opportunity for a project. I spoke recently to a wealth fund manager who works with tech millionaires, a relatively new species found among the rich who has, through entrepreneurial skill, amassed great wealth, but has amassed it at a much younger age than the captains of industry of yore, and still has the inner drive and restlessness of an up and comer with something to prove.

Andrea Radrizzani is 43 years old and set for life, but that’s awful young to retire; and where would be the fun in repeating the same trick that made him rich already? Now’s the time for a risk, and Silva has shown Radrizzani the way.

Which could present a problem for Leeds United — a hungry for glory gambler betting his wealth for Premier League riches was what we thought, at best, Cellino might be. The difference with Radrizzani is that nothing about his background sets off the warning alarms the way even a glance at Cellino’s life story did.

He studied public relations at university. He left and started working in sports broadcasting with Riccardo Silva. He was successful enough to become a founding partner in Silva’s next venture, working as ‘creative lead’ and Group CEO. The growth of MP & Silva into one of the globe’s leading sports broadcasting businesses has been phenomenal. Their track record of delivering for and with elite partners is exemplary. He also runs charitable foundations with the aim of getting kids to participate in sport and cycling, the bastard. About the most damning thing I could find on Radrizzani was an admission that, if he can’t sleep while on an a plane, he’ll sometimes “Help myself to a vodka tonic.” The rest of the time he drinks water; “I never drink coffee on airplanes. Being Italian, I simply know I won’t find a very good one.”

Ken Bates was a born loser, whose big schemes have always ended in failure; chased away from the Caribbean island he “bought” in the early 1970s, he didn’t even finish the East Stand extensions at Elland Road. GFH were chancers who came to flip, but would have had less trouble flipping an oil tanker with a pencil. Cellino was a gambler, who didn’t stop to consider the other players’ hands.

The contrasts with Radrizzani couldn’t be sharper. But this is Leeds United, so what’s the downside? Well, it depends on the plan. Because what Radrizzani is good at — public relations, broadcasting rights, production and market growth — pretty much represent all the things about football that traditionalists among football fans detest. It’s the frame, not the picture; the TV (and online) experience, not the game as seen from the stands. Radrizzani could be perfect for maximising the commercial opportunities in the Premier League, but who would trade that for the wildly swinging bollocks of Pontus Jansson knocking over opponents like nine-pins here in Division Two?

Part of the question here is experience; Radrizzani has only ever seen football clubs from the other side of the table — he hasn’t run one himself — but let’s say he’s a fast learner. Let’s also say that if, as rumoured, Ivan Bravo is coming with him, then the former Director of Strategy at Real Madrid, who is currently developing the sports infrastructure of Qatar with the aim of their national team being competitive when (if) they host the World Cup in 2022, would seem like the right sort of help, especially when compared to, say, Hockaday and Lewis.

The other part of the question is pretty much out of Radrizzani’s hands, but a problem that in a sense GFH and Cellino have protected us from: whether we want to be dragged, kicking and screaming, not just into the modern era of football, but to the cutting edge of its next generational advance. If there truly is synergy between Radrizzani’s twin interests in Baofong and Leeds United, it could mean that in the not too far distant future watching United’s tour of China through virtual reality headsets, so that when, on the other side of the world, Jansson’s testicles swing, back here in Leeds, you duck. And you probably pay handsomely for the privilege.

Leeds United aren’t so much a sleeping giant these days as an anachronism. How many Premier League clubs have wooden seats in their main stand, not to mention no executive boxes there with a sheltered view of the pitch? And yet that’s the way we love Elland Road. The longing, as this season’s crowds have shown, has been for success on the pitch: we just want a good football team. A really good one. And if that’s what Radrizzani delivers, the city will be happy.

But Andrea Radrizzani is unlikely to stop there. If he’s a success, things will change at Elland Road; including, I’m sure, some things we’d rather stay the same; then it becomes a matter of whether he can convince us to go with him into football’s future. Which, while it might not be an easy process, must be preferable to having another owner who we have to try and drive out. Let’s see.

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Originally published in The Square Ball Volume 27, Issue 6

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