‘Nothing has greater allure’

19 Jul 2019 | 12:48

    Growing up in Calabria, at the toe of the Italian boot, Rocco B. Commisso used a soccer ball made of old rags and underwear to play with his friends. Italy was still suffering from the ravages of World War II and nobody could afford the real thing.
    In 1962, Commisso emigrated to the United States at age 12, not speaking a word of English. His family first lived in Baden, Pa., before moving to the Bronx.
    Now, at age 69, he is a billionaire entrepreneur, sole owner of the Mediacom Communications, the cable television provider he founded in Orange County, N.Y.
    Last month in whirlwind negotiations he purchased his own professional Italian soccer team, ACF Fiorentina - known as “The Violets” for the color of its players’ jerseys. Commisso is eager to tap the U.S. market and will showcase the team at a match with Portuguese Benfica on July 24 at Red Bull Stadium in Harrison, N.J.
    ‘The game gave me a pathway’
    "Soccer has opened so many doors for me throughout my life,” Commisso said last year at his induction to the Italian American Sports Hall of Fame. “The game gave me a pathway to a successful Ivy League education and successful business career, allowed me to spend time with my children as a youth coach and provided me a connection to the most iconic soccer team in North America.”
    Commisso received a full soccer scholarship at Columbia University and played there from 1967 to 1970. He was co-captain of a Lions squad that contained immigrants from 16 nations that made the school’s first appearance in the NCAA tournament. He was invited to try out for the Olympics, but he was out of shape and didn’t make the team.
    In recognition of his continued support of his alma mater’s men and women’s teams, Columbia named its soccer stadium for him.
    In 2017, he bought the New York Cosmos, where Brazilian superstar Pelé once played. (Commisso has an autographed picture in his office.).
    He soon became embroiled in an expensive legal dispute with the U.S. Soccer Federation, the governing body of U.S. soccer, which he says double-crossed him just months after the purchase by relegating the Cosmos to a lower, less profitable tier of the league.
    “What they did wasn’t right,” Commisso said. He also has been very critical of the federation’s “horrible” overall performance.
    Commisso dangled a conditional $500 million investment to shore up standards in the Cosmos’ league, but the offer has gone nowhere. He pledges to continue an expensive federal court antitrust action against the federation and Major League Soccer.
    Personal worth
    Meanwhile, Commisso is spending a big chunk of his sizable fortune in his native land. Bloomberg says he is worth $6.54 billion, Forbes a more modest $4.2 billion.
    He declines to say how much he paid for Fiorentina but news reports have pegged the price at $150 million to $200 million. Future investments will be necessary.
    A longtime fan of Italian soccer, Commisso has been looking for a team to buy for several years. He has become the latest foreign investor to buy into Italy’s top professional league, Serie A, by purchasing AFC Fiorentina.
    However, Commisso is quick to distinguish himself from other outside owners by noting that was born in Italy.
    “I think it’s the first time in the history of Italian soccer that an immigrant has returned to invest money,” he said in an ESPN interview.
    In Italy, soccer is a religion. Fans proudly wear team shirts, buy team gear and pack huge stadiums for matches.
    “Nothing,” Commisso said, “has a greater allure.”
    Many fans around the world, including Commisso, have adopted Pelé’s description of soccer as “the beautiful game.” Part of its appeal, said the 5’7” or 5’8” Commisso, is that you don’t have to be a giant to compete successfully.
    In culture-rich Florence, 453 miles from beaches and concrete streets of Calabria , where he first honed his soccer skills, fans have “accepted me,” Commisso said.
    Some 8,000 people flocked to the city’s 43,000-seat stadium to see the new owner. An exuberant Commisso waved the team flag and demonstrated his continued prowess at soccer kicks. He also visited a children’s hospital to hand out soccer goodies bags to the patients.
    The Violets finished a disappointing 16th among 20 teams in Serie A in the just completed season. Many fans had become fed up with the family that had owned the team for 17 years and welcomed Commisso as a savior. Some waved banners that clothed him in the mantle of the Americans who helped liberate the city from the Nazis in April 1944.
    Commisso has started reshaping the team. He has hired a new “sports director” (general manager) and is strategizing with team officials about how to keep its best players and lure new stars in the sport’s expensive “transfer market.” He also has raised the prospect of renovating dilapidated city-owned stadium that is The Violets’ home base.
    However, he said that he is careful not to overpromise.
    “It’s going to be a rebuilding year,” he said, adding that he doesn’t think that will matter to Italians, who “think in centuries.”
    For the moment, Commisso said he is spending “99 percent” of his time on soccer but realizes he has to find a balance between the beautiful game and the American business that pays the bills.
    “I’ve told (the Florentines,” he said, “that I’m going to be flying back and forth.”
    Forbes Magazine’s list of billionaires
    Commisso, who lives in Saddle River, N.J., presides over Mediacom from a futuristic structure in Blooming Grove, N.Y., that incorporates a staircase crafted in Italy. His office has a panoramic view nearby mountains; the property also contains bocce courts and nature trail.
    The author of a 2017 Forbes profile on the occasion of his debut on the magazine’s billionaires list (“they caught me,” joked Commisso) wrote that the Mediacom owner can be “brash and domineering.” According to a Guardian reporter, his 2018 letter to the soccer federation offering to invest contained “the mix of grandstanding and polemic that marked Commisso’s arrival onto the U.S. soccer stage.”
    Thomas Larsen, Mediacom’s senior vice president of government and public relations, described his boss is “passionate and incredibly hard working” and “views the world from the perspective of an underdog.”
    ‘You aren’t Jewish or Irish’
    Commisso himself isn’t shy about his success.
    “In the history of Italian immigration, in the business word,” he told Forbes, “I don’t think there’s another like me in the last 100 years.”
    Commisso’s father Giuseppe, a carpenter looking for more steady work, came to the U.S. in 1956 with Commisso’s older brother. Commisso arrived in 1962 with his mother Maria Rosa and his two sisters.
    “I didn’t want to come, but after a week I loved it,” recalled Commisso, who added that U.S. showed that it was a “great country” for encouraging emigration of his father, a former POW who fought on the losing side during World War II.
    Commisso found a job playing an accordion during intermissions at a theater in the Bronx. (He still plays the accordion during Mediacom company picnics.) The theater’s owner persuaded Mount Saint Michael Academy even though he was too late to take the entrance exam.
    He worked 40 hours a week to pay the Catholic school’s tuition and graduated first in his class. He didn’t play organized soccer – the school didn’t have a team – but his gym teacher recommended him to Columbia’s soccer coach.
    Commisso earned a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering (1971) and a masters’ degree in business administration (1975). He recalls that he received 17 job offers but done for coveted investment bank positions.
    He said, with bitterness still evident today, that one banker told him: “Rocco, you know what your problem is? You aren’t Jewish or Irish. The Italians haven’t arrived on Wall Street.”
    There are no shortcuts
    Instead, he worked at a Pfizer factory in Brooklyn and in commercial banking at Chase and the Royal Bank of Scotland, where he worked with “cowboys” in the cable and entertainment industry. Alan Gerry of Cablevision, in Sullivan County, N.Y., one of his clients, hired him as his chief financial officer, a job he held for nine years.
    When Gerry sold Cablevision to Time Warner, now part of Spectrum, in 1996, Commisso struck out on its own. Mediacom, the fifth largest cable company in the country, focuses on rural markets in states like Iowa and Illinois.
    With revenues of close to $2 billion, Commisso said Mediacom’s finances are “very safe.” There has been persistent speculation that he will choose this moment to sell out, but he says he has no intention of doing that.
    Commisso said he sets an example for his employees and he won’t tolerate shortcuts. But he doesn’t like to fire people and many employees have been with him for a long time. His wife, sister, son and nephew all work at the company.
    The Violets are likely to get a dose of their new owner’s business philosophy
    “They may lose,” he said, “but they better work hard.”