Former NYSE Chief Steps Into Precarious World of Italian Soccer

When Venezia FC sealed its return to Italy’s top soccer league after two decades, the team marked the achievement in May by parading through the city’s canals on a boat as fans unfurled banners from bridges. For American owner Duncan Niederauer, now comes the bigger challenge.

A former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. banker who served as chief executive of the New York Stock Exchange, Niederauer admits he’s on a steep learning curve as the club from Venice prepares to play in Serie A when the season starts next month. The plan is to turn Venezia into a sustainable commercial enterprise.

“Our aim is to run this as a business, with proper budgets, balancing success on the pitch with fiscal responsibility,” Niederauer, 61, the club’s president, said in an interview. “We create a financial plan and adhere to it. Our egos don’t get in the way.”

Former NYSE Chief Steps Into Precarious World of Italian Soccer

That might sound like a fairly basic ambition in most industries. But in the indebted, over-spending world of soccer, such plans have a habit of failing. Italy is exhibit A when it comes to the parlous financial state of the sport, albeit masked by the success of the national team at the European soccer championships.

Italian club soccer sits at a crossroads, with top team Juventus revealing the pandemic has cost it 320 million euros ($380 million) and forcing it to seek another 400 million-euro capital increase. Its plan to join the doomed European Super League along with the two Milan clubs was thwarted by outrage from sports authorities and politicians.

Venezia is a relative minnow, though will enter the 20-member top flight Serie A after it won promotion from the second tier during its first season under U.S. ownership. A group led by Niederauer bought the Venice club in February last year and has spent about 20 million euros in total.

“It would be pretentious and presumptuous of me to think we or I could have an immediate impact,” said Niederauer. “Having not been in Serie A for 20 years as a club, and given my lack of experience in the world of football, this is the time for me to learn, and then see where I can contribute.”

American investors are often put off by the financial jeopardy of the system of promotion and relegation that is core to the European game. Ending that uncertainty over a team’s ability to keep playing the biggest games was a major factor in the proposals for the European Super League.

But five Serie A clubs will have U.S. investors next season, with Venezia joining Roma, AC Milan, Spezia and Fiorentina. That may help Italian soccer come up with other financing options after efforts to sell a $2 billion stake to a private equity investor group were undermined because the league’s board failed to act on the deal.

Niederauer said that if a similar proposal same forward he would be keen to use his experience in finance to help evaluate it. He was CEO of NYSE Euronext from 2007 to 2014 after working at Goldman Sachs since 1985, according to his LinkedIn biography. He also founded an investment advisory firm and a financial technology venture fund.

His short-term goals include building a new training headquarters for the Venice team, improving its 7,000 capacity stadium, putting the coach on a long-term contract, revamping the youth squad and establishing a women’s team.

“Even if we don’t succeed in Serie A this season, that doesn’t mean we failed,” said Niederauer. “We have improved our club, our business, our stadium and our training ground. If we take a long view—which one must do with any project like this—those improvements don’t suggest failure to me.”

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