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Andrea Radrizzani: “I’m good to go up, it would be great. Otherwise, I need to consider other options.”

English Football League club owners face a near-impossible dilemma. Pushing for the Premier League can risk a club’s entire future, but focusing on sustainability can see a club swallowed up by the pack. SportBusiness Professional spoke to three English club owners, each with distinct ambitions, about why they took the plunge and how they intend to succeed.

After selling most of his stake in media rights agency MP & Silva, Andrea Radrizzani wanted to continue plying his trade in the business of football. When he took over at Leeds United in 2017, the club was in dire straits after three years of mismanagement at the hands of former owner Massimo Cellino. Radrizzani stopped the rot, bought the club’s home stadium and brought in Marcelo Bielsa, one of the best coaches in the world.

Leeds are now pushing for promotion from the Championship to the Premier League, but the amount of money being spent means the clock is ticking. Radrizzani doesn’t want to own a Championship club any more.

You acquired Leeds in a very difficult position when the club was struggling financially. Had you always wanted to own a football club? If so, why?

I always had that passion for football. I never thought I would own a football club one day. It was something you think is unachievable when you’re a young kid. But then, life brought me to a position to make it happen.

Initially, the idea was to invest in football clubs to develop players. Not in small clubs, but big clubs in other countries. Then, I had this opportunity with Leeds. I decided to invest because I was attracted by the challenge of bringing a big club back to where it belonged, and to create something that I could be remembered for.

And when you made the decision to buy the stake from Massimo Cellino, did you know how much the club had struggled in the past? Did it feel like a club that was struggling when you arrived?

Yes, absolutely. When I arrived, Massimo showed me a club that suffered. The fans and the people around the club had suffered a lot. Even the facilities, they were old. The club itself is a big brand with a big culture and big history, but it was only living off memories. One of my first objectives and missions, which continues now, is to make the club – the people around the club and the fans – live off of future hopes and ambitions, not just memories.

Legacy and memories are very important, and we need always to keep that in our hearts and our minds, especially in moments like this when we celebrate our 100th anniversary. It’s a very important moment to remember the glorious times and the great players we had the opportunity to have at this club. What we have achieved that is only for a few clubs in the world – the opportunity to achieve and play at this high level of competition and to win. We’ve been good, strong and lucky enough to enjoy that opportunity. But this is to be used as motivation for the future.

And why did you make buying Elland Road such a top priority and why is owning a football stadium so important for a football club?

It’s your home. When you own your home, you can plan for your future. You have an asset that is yours. You don’t have to pay the rent. And, in case you’re successful with your culture and you are in the Premier League, you can build your asset, build more services for the fans and innovate. And this is very important to me.

In your interview in The Times, you mentioned that you had made some mistakes earlier on in your tenure at Leeds…

One mistake was speaking to them, to be honest! The report was correct about what I said, but not in the context in which I said it to them. I said that we have done well in this short period of time under my management, under our CEO, our football director and the coaches. We almost achieved promotion last year, we are competitive again this year. We modernised the club and, as a consequence of this, we have been reached out to by many potential investors. We have engaged only with a few of them – those that we think could eventually, one day, help the club to be as big as it once was. This was my message, but it was perceived like I’m about to sell tomorrow, which is not the case.

Understood!

There was an interesting part of that interview where you said you’d made some mistakes early on regarding players or transfers, and that you’d learned from that. If you could give some advice to your former self, what would you say to him? And what should you have done instead?

When you come on board at a football club and you’ve been a football fan for years, you think that you can change things quickly. Maybe you get passionate about the potential quality of players and the potential of young players. You trust your football director’s judgment and then you believe that this or that player could have an impact. But you maybe need to understand the context in which these players must play, and how they are going to be integrated. This takes time to understand and unfortunately, not every club has the patience and the time to wait for players. For sure, Leeds is not one of these clubs. To play in a stadium like Elland Road is not for everyone. Honestly, I underestimated this aspect. I think it was a big lesson. We’re now much more careful when buying players to integrate with the project.

You’ve been vocal about increasing the club’s share of media rights revenue. Given that Leeds are on TV so much, does it not increase the potential sponsorship revenue? Or is there a limit to the amount of revenue you can earn in the second tier?

We earned over £50m this year and we increased that in the last two years. I think more than that is almost impossible. We have, so far, the highest revenue in this league. We have amazing fans, they come to the stadium and fill the stadium every game. Unfortunately, we get very few pennies for the exposure we have on TV. These are rights exploited well by Sky because we were shown more than 20 times last year, most of the time in primetime, with an average audience of between 500,000 and 600,000 people. I think for the audience we reach and the importance we have in the offer of Sky, we are not paid enough.

I want to be clear: Sky is not the enemy. It’s just the system that is wrong; the way the money is allocated. I’m not complaining about Sky, which is a good partner that legitimately buys the rights at the price they’ve been assigned. I’m not against Sky. I’m against the system and the way the governance of football doesn’t change, and doesn’t respect the value of the club. We have to share with 71 other clubs. We have too many professional clubs.

There has been plenty of talk about investors either buying minority or a majority stake in the club. When you bought Leeds United, was this in your mind from the very beginning? Did you want to build Leeds up in order to sell at a higher price?

On that, I never thought about buying Leeds to speculate. Actually, quite the opposite. I always said I would stay longer if we go to the Premier League. I might sell if we don’t go to the Premier League because it’s a hell of a division, this.

It’s very difficult to be competitive and lose money every year. So there is a problem for every owner in this league. You cannot stay long and be competitive, unless you decide to stay in this league for pleasure, which is not my case.

There is a period of time for everything in this league. You cannot stay too long. I’m good to go up. It would be great… otherwise I need to consider other options. It’s either that or I stay, and everyone – including the fans – would need to understand that we belong to the Championship!

The opportunity to open to other investors is I think interesting for sure if we are in the Premier League because the potential of this club is massive. I will not limit the club by being selfish. I would be happy to open up to venture capital or investors so the club can become bigger. I would have a smaller slice of a bigger cake.

When you bought Leeds, did how much of a risk did you think you were taking when you bought the club, given how difficult it is to get promoted from the Championship?

To be honest, I think for a club of this division, I already invested too much. Because with the same level of investment I could be sitting mid-table in another top division in Europe. I’m always optimistic when I start something and I’m still positive. But it’s obviously very, very difficult because it doesn’t depend on the level of investment. It depends on how much you work, the mentality of the club, and also the details and events that are not under your control.

Promotion to the Premier League is important. But is it possible for Leeds United to sustain itself as a football club in the Championship and be profitable?

With another budget with another wage budget, yes. With this one? Impossible. If we need to stay sustainable, if we have to be sustainable, it would probably be much more difficult to compete at the top level. But the same time I also believe that football has proved the opposite. You have clubs like Sheffield United or Huddersfield that have done a fantastic job in reaching the Premier League without investing the money we did. That’s not only about luck. It’s about building the right ambition and the right mentality, especially into the players. Obviously, to do it in Leeds it’s more difficult. The level of stress and demand of the fans is much higher than other cities.

 

Read the article: Radrizzani ready to ride again, but for how much longer?

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