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ViolaNation Exclusive - An interview with Rocco Commisso

Part 1 - A look at his life and first days as Fiorentina owner

Rocco at Mount Saint Michael Academy during ribbon cutting ceremony for field he funded
Rocco Commisso

Recently, Rocco Commisso and his Mediacom team hosted ViolaNation at their headquarters in Mediacom Park, NY. Our conversation will provide the basis for a series of articles to be posted over the next few days. Please come back for each as we discuss various topics such as his ownership, background, the stadium, the fan base, the business and the future.

In Part 1, Rocco shared with us important moments in his life that helped shape who he is today, the circumstances behind the long process of purchasing Fiorentina and what stood out during his first days as owner of Fiorentina. One thing that resonated throughout our conversation was the humanity with which Rocco was raised and lives his life. I don’t know if Rocco set out as a kid to be extraordinary, but he certainly has gotten to where he is now by doing extraordinary things.

He deeply values his family and those who have helped him get to this point. After a lifetime of hard work, it seems as if he is now in a place where he can enjoy the fruits of his labor, well, hopefully. Tom Larsen, SVP of Mediacom, told us, “We have never seen him as happy as he has been since purchasing Fiorentina and meeting the fans.” That’s not bad for a kid who came from Calabria to the United States at the age of 12 and hasn’t stopped working since.

How did we get here? What attracted you to Florence and Fiorentina?

I have been asked to invest in Italian soccer for a long time. The first time I engaged with Fiorentina came after an opportunity to purchase Roma in 2010/11. The process was led by Credit Suisse. The Della Valle family gave them the mandate in 2016 to sell the club. We put in a bid to buy the team in 2016 and then again in 2017. That same year we also invested to save the NY Cosmos from bankruptcy. Nothing progressed with Fiorentina. I think they [the Della Valle family] were just feeling out the market, understanding what was available and not.

In 2018 we worked on a deal to purchase AC Milan. After months of work on our part, we never signed a binding agreement and the club was finally seized by the lenders [Elliott Management Corp], with the Chinese investors presumably losing over $500 million in less than 2 years. That same year we were also approached to make investments in other countries-- teams in Switzerland, France and England. These didn’t interest me.

In late 2018, Fiorentina came back to see me in NY. JP Morgan acted as an intermediary, a bank with ties to the Della Valle family in Italy and Mediacom’s primary bank in the USA. However, the asking price was very high, which I was not willing to entertain.

Then, things changed quickly. The team started losing, and the fans protested the ownership. In May 2019, they came back to New York and I told them the asking price needed to be lowered substantially from the 2018 number. They did just that and within a few weeks we signed the deal.

Getting back to your second question. What turned me on to Florence was its incredible beauty, the culture, the people and that it has only one football team. What turned me on to the club was its passionate fan base, the reasonable valuation of the team, Fiorentina’s long history among the Seven Sisters of Serie A, and frankly, their lack of winning any trophies during the past 18 years. I would be honored to give something back to the Viola fans that they have missed for decades.

Did Fiorentina have any one factor you identified that you knew this would be the club that would allow you to live out your dreams?

The fans, they had a lot to do with it. I put our fans all the way up at the top of the pyramid. You have to understand, with all the movement in and out of teams; the players, coaches and even ownership, the fan base is the only thing that remains. They are the only true bandiere left in the game. These people have been here supporting Fiorentina for 40-50-60 years.

Tell us about the viral video of you playing the “Inno Fiorentina” on the piano.

Some people have asked me why I don’t know the words to the song yet. My brain works in a certain way. I am terrible with remembering lyrics—in fact, I have not memorized the full lyrics to any songs ever. But when I listen to a song that I like, I am pretty good at replaying the melody on the piano or the accordion. And I know hundreds of songs—all by ear.

You won a talent show as a kid playing the accordion. Do you still play?

I played the accordion every Wednesday at a local theater in the summer of 1964. The man who ran the theater helped me get into Mount Saint Michael Academy [a Catholic boys school Rocco attended and continues to provide financial support to today], without ever taking the entrance exam. I still play the accordion, but not often. Mediacom SVP Tom Larsen adds, “He does break it out occasionally at picnics or holiday parties.”

Rocco as a boy with his accordion
Rocco Commisso

[Rocco continues] About 10 years ago, on a train taking 30 cable television executives and their spouses from Portofino to Cinque Terre, a guy comes into the train trying to make some money playing the accordion. He was very talented but I felt bad for the poor guy as no one on the train was offering any tips. I pulled him aside and we came up with a plan. I took the accordion from him and gave him the hat to collect tips. I said you follow me with the hat, and I will play the accordion. I started playing up and down the aisles while loudly encouraging all the riders--especially the wealthy cable executives-- to put money in his hat. He became a rich man in just a few hours.

How did your soccer career and Columbia University impact the Rocco Commisso we know today?

This all actually started with New York University offering me a partial athletic scholarship to play soccer. I took NYU’s scholarship offer and used that as leverage to earn a full 4-year scholarship from Columbia, which today has a value exceeding $300,000. This was huge for me, because I could never afford the University’s high tuition costs. The interesting thing is Columbia never even saw me play. They just knew NYU was recruiting me and that was enough for them. This is the story I tried to teach my children, the young soccer players that I coached, and everyone employed at Mediacom. Once somebody gives you a break or an opportunity to shine, then it is your job to deliver and not disappoint those that took a chance on you.

My freshmen year at Columbia in the Fall of 1967, our team had the University’s first and only undefeated/untied soccer season. Compared to NYU, Columbia was not viewed as a soccer powerhouse at that time, but we beat NYU 4-0 in my first year. Our 1970 team, a group of young men that I co-captained, went on to the NCAA playoffs for the first time ever. The special thing about that team isn’t that we made the playoffs though, it is that we had players from 16 different nations representing 5 continents, most of whom are still my friends.

Columbia and soccer opened the doors to what came afterwards in my career. I owe a lot to the school and the sport. Interestingly, when Forbes 400 published their recent list, they identified me as the only member who played soccer in college.

Since you arrived in Firenze as the owner of Fiorentina, what has been the biggest surprise?

For sure the fans. How they treated me and my family from the very first day. I have been treated like gold so far. I just don’t know how long it is going to last, but they are being patient and giving me time to learn.

There is no better reflection of how well we have been accepted than the 28,000 season tickets purchased by our fans—a 20-year record for Fiorentina and the 3rd highest in Serie A. It is an incredible achievement that makes me very proud. The fans are repaying us for the work we have put in thus far, despite the poor results from last season.

That is the positive side. On the negative side, the Italian bureaucratic system regarding infrastructure investments and the inability to move fast have stood out. Compared to America, it takes too long to get anything done, and that will hurt our growth, on and off the field.

What has been your favorite moment since purchasing the club and why?

The most memorable moment came during my first visit to the Stadio Franchi. What the fans did for me that day is normally reserved for celebrities, players, and movie stars. I have never received a reception like that in my entire life. I go to a stadium to cheer on players, not to be the one being celebrated. That moment was exceptional, and it will always be cherished. I will never forget it. Thank you Fiorentini.

What has been overwhelming though is the unrelenting requests for selfies in Florence. It takes a lot out of me at my age. It is one of the reasons why I can’t go to the stands. I would love to watch a game in Curva Fiesole close to our most ardent supporters, but there is no way that this old body with a bad back would have the necessary energy to stand for more than 10 minutes.

Rocco in elementary school in Calabria
Rocco Commisso

Over the next two weeks, we will be putting out our additional interviews with Rocco. Please check back early next week as we sit down with Rocco to discuss his thoughts on the stadium and Centro Sportivo.

Forza Viola! Batti Milan!