Italian-American co-owner is doing like Leeds, Spurs, City and Juventus – but he is doing it with an Italian fourth-tier club

23 February 2021

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Photo: PR The Campobasso team in Serie D have lost only twice in 32 matches and are pushing for promotion. Up until 6 weeks ago they had the second longest unbeaten streak of any club in European professional football at any level, behind only Feyenoord.

Italian-American Matt Rizzetta and co-owner Halley Holding, a Swiss based hedge fund, are targeting no less than three promotions for their Italian Serie D club, Campobasso.

The commercial strategy differs significantly compared to most other clubs from lower leagues.

Campobasso have teamed up with Italian Football TV (IFTV) who has a significant English-speaking audience.

The club are working on their own non-fiction tv-series called “Underdogs”. “It’s really to leverage the club as a platform to create a message that unifies people, especially in the time of division, suffering and pain,” says the owner.

Shahnaz Mahmud contact@offthepitch.com

Eleven years ago, when Matt Rizzetta launched North 6th Agency, a company grounded in brand communications and social media, he wrote down a list of five things he wanted to accomplish in his career, placed it into an envelope and sealed it.

High on that list was to buy a soccer club. He can check that one off now. Rizzetta, an Italian-American based in New York, is now the proud (and part) owner of  Serie D Società Sportiva Dilettantistica Città di Campobasso (Campobasso) an Italian association football club belonging to Campobasso, which sits at the center of the Molise region, located between Rome and Naples, its east coast straddling the Adriatic Sea and the west coast nestled in the mountains.

The club’s origins date back to 1919 and was refounded for a second time in 2013 ( the first in 2003) after the city of Campobasso cancelled its team Polisportiva Nuovo Campobasso Calcio, and needed a club to represent it.

Investors across Europe

Rizzetta’s family office holding company, North Sixth Group, holds options up to 49 per cent while the hedge fund Halley Holding, based in Lugano, Switzerland, owns 51 per cent. The deal was signed in early December 2020, after discussions began roughly six months earlier.

Campobasso sits between 10-15 per cent of North Sixth Group’s capital deployment. The family office holding company invests in real estate, media, technology, travel, sports and entertainment and community initiatives, such as the Lauren Nicole Rizzetta fund, dedicated to Rizzetta’s sister that supports special needs students.

President Mario Gesue (left) from Halley Holding and Matt Rizzetta (right).
Photo: PR President Mario Gesue (left) from Halley Holding and Matt Rizzetta (right).

Halley Holding holds interests in various investments across the financial services and technology sectors. The hedge fund is backed by investors across the U.K. and Europe, and those interests are held in companies in markets such as England and Italy. Mario Gesue serves as CEO of the hedge fund. He is also the Chairman of Starboard Capital, a London-based private equity firm.

In it for the long haul

With this investment, Rizzetta intends to build a sustainable business — and is in it for the long haul. When North Sixth Group made the decision to purchase a club, painstaking due diligence followed: researching the market, talking to investors that had made successful investments in soccer. Rizzetta was well-aware of his American predecessors who ultimately were unsuccessful with their investments, mainly because of the cultural differences in doing business in Italy.

“I’m Italian American — I’m about as connected to Italy as anyone you’re going to meet, and it was difficult to adjust to this way of doing business even for me,” said Rizzetta, pointing to bureaucracy and the lack of an international vision as the main challenges he faced.

Campobasso was on a long list of potentials, but when Rizzetta met Mario Gesue from the Swiss hedge fund, he felt an immediate rapport that he hadn’t with the other club owners he had met. Rizzetta also recognized team Campobasso's more westernized approach to business.

“Mario and his team had an incredible vision and similarity of style of doing business—that was a major advantage and one of the main reasons I chose to invest in this club,” said Rizzetta.

Waiting list of investors

And with this acute understanding of Americans doing business not so well in Italy, Rizzetta wanted to go in and be a complementary resource to a base that was already strong. His desire was to add a layer Halley Holding didn’t have, which was bringing the club into international markets, expanding the brand globally and bringing investors to the table that they wouldn’t have had access to.

“They were doing a great job of managing the club, handling the on-the-field affairs as well as the balance sheet, so I thought that was a very complementary set up,” he added.

Now you have to be a billionaire to own [an EPL club] - that speaks volumes to how adept they were at exporting their brands internationally.

The original thought was to self-finance the investment into the soccer club. But, now Rizzetta finds himself holding a waiting list of investors who have expressed interest in joining them. The intention—at the moment—is to wait until Campobasso rises through the ranks to become a Serie A club.

“I think at that point we’ll probably entertain institutional investors - when we are competing at the highest level of European football, that's when we will really be looking for a significant capital raise,” he said, noting, nonetheless, that the team will sit down at the end of the year to evaluate its list of interested parties.

Positive cash return

From a Profit and Loss (P&L) point of view, Rizzetta said Campobasso is already operating at a better than break even status and is generating positive cash return.  Entering into it, the investment strategy was to bet on the asset value.

“We bought the club at a valuation of a few million Euros and the goal is to grow the asset value by building the brand internationally, in merchandising and investing in the youth academy,” Rizzetta explained.

Stadio Nuovo Romagnoli with a maximum capacity of 21.800 - however the maximum capacity permissible by the state is expected to be 7,500 once the pandemic is over. Campobasso expect to sell out all games at the 7,500 capacity once the pandemic ends.
Photo: PR The home of Campobasso is Stadio Nuovo Romagnoli with a maximum capacity of 21.800 - however the maximum capacity permissible by the state is expected to be 7,500 once the pandemic is over. Campobasso expect to sell out all games at the 7,500 capacity once the pandemic ends.

“Just from the asset value standpoint, we obviously haven’t sold any of our shares yet, but we’ve had so much interest from investors. The value of the asset, we believe, is way more than what we paid for already.”

First order of business: exporting the brand

The long term ambitions are to create a top competitive Italian club—not just within the Italian league, but within all of European football. The first order of business is to export the brand into the United States, with key learnings derived from the success of some of the English Premier League teams, like Chelsea and Manchester United, who began their strategy some 20-30 years ago, as well as teams from the Bundesliga in Germany, like FC Bayern Munich.

Rizzetta highlights the asset values of EPL, which average US$1 billion.

“How [did they achieve that]?, he asked.

“I believe it began 20-25 years ago when they started to invest in the international markets. They took their merchandising strategy international and set up clubs and retail shops in some of the biggest hubs in the North American market. They capitalized on TV rights with ESPN and other North American content providers before the other clubs and leagues did. Now you have to be a billionaire to own [an EPL club] - that speaks volumes to how adept they were at exporting their brands internationally.” Rizzetta added that from a quality and tradition standpoint, the Italian clubs stand second to none. But, they have lagged behind in innovation and marketing, touting a more provincial mindset, with only a few clubs, like Juventus, dabbling in internationalizing its brand.

For Rizzetta, his desire is to leverage Campobasso as a platform to represent immigrants of all nations is as great as transforming the club.

Still smell the espresso

“There are so many interesting intertwined stories here that went into the reasoning behind this investment,” he explained. “For me, this is much more about a social movement — a cultural initiative.” Over the next five to ten years, the club owners aim to create a brand that represents a set of values that all immigrants and expats can relate to.

Rizzetta’s passion for football is very much tied to his grandfather, an Italian immigrant to the United States

 “I can still smell the espresso in my grandparents kitchen on Sunday mornings,” he said, also recalling the times he would sit in front of the television on his grandfather’s lap watching Italian soccer.

The Players of Cambobasso is celebrating yet another goal in this season where they currently top the table.
Photo: PR The Players of Cambobasso is celebrating yet another goal in this season where they currently top the table.

“Some of the most beautiful memories of my childhood are in that living room with my grandfather.” Rizzetta reminisced about their conversations, which were not only about soccer, but about life.

"He would tell me about his immigrant journey, why he came here and what his hope was for me was,” said Rizzetta. This, he said, is the underlying importance of the investment into Campobasso.

“It’s a way for me to relive my childhood, “said Rizzetta. “There are not many investments you can make that truly bring your childhood back — and this is representative of that for me.”

Immigrant experiences: the ties that bind

Central to the Campobasso strategy is targeting an addressable market, an ‘infinite audience’ that goes well-beyond Italian-Americans.

“[By doing so] you get into people who have an emotional connection," said Rizzetta. The goal is to galvanize the immigrant and expat community from all over the world and instill a desire to rally around that message of sacrifice and hope so familiar to the community at large.

Rizzetta recognized the need for content, as storytelling lies so much at the heart of the immigrant experience. Campobasso searched for a content partner, finding the right fit with Italian Football TV (IFTV).

The more we win, the more opportunity we’re going to have to spread that message, and the more we spread that message, the more opportunity there is for us to win.

Rizzetta explained that IFTV was one of the few platforms in North America to have a significant English-speaking audience. Campobasso signed a three-year exclusive deal (through the 2022-2023 season) with the content provider, making it the only club in Italian soccer to have such a deal with it outside of the top division.

Unknown part of the world

IFTV has carte blanche to run content, promote the club and tell the story, communicating Campobasso’s values as they see fit. However, Rizzetta took an idea focused on the underdog to Marco Messina, cofounder of IFTV. Witnessing EPL clubs like Man City and Tottenham —and even Italy’s Juventus create behind-the-scenes programming on some of the big streaming services like Amazon Prime and Netflix, he saw an opportunity to tell a different type of story, away from what some of the biggest clubs in the world do.

The new co-owner was welcomed to the club with the making of a local pizza.
Photo: PR The new co-owner was welcomed to the club with the making of a local pizza.

Thus, the series “Underdogs” was born. The non-fiction show’s underpinning is of the young, hungry and ambitious, of people on and off the field, like Rizzetta, who have chosen to invest in an unknown part of the world. The first episode will be shot in upcoming May.

When asked what excites him the most about growing the club, Rizzetta pointed to two things. The first, of course, is to put a great product onto the field. The second is more far-reaching.

“It’s really to leverage the club as a platform to create a message that unifies people, especially in the time of division, suffering and pain,” said Rizzetta. He added that those two aspects are really one and the same.

“The more we win, the more opportunity we’re going to have to spread that message, and the more we spread that message, the more opportunity there is for us to win,” said Rizzetta.