Italian Soccer’s Secret Weapon

Mediacom Communications
(Image credit: Mediacom Communications)


It’s pretty rare when a team owner gets called out -- positively -- when a TV sports rights deal is announced by a league and a programmer, but that’s what happened in ViacomCBS’s three-year deal for exclusive U.S. rights to stream games from Italian soccer league Serie A. But then again, Rocco Commisso isn’t just any team owner.

ViacomCBS made good on its promise to double down on soccer rights on March 25, agreeing to a three-year deal to carry the league on its fledgling streaming service Paramount Plus as well as CBS Sports and CBS Sports Network. While the terms of the deal weren’t announced, reports have put the value at about $200 million over the three years.

In announcing the deal there were the usual niceties -- both sides praised each other’s foresight in agreeing to the transaction -- but further down in the release, Serie A CEO Luigi De Siervo personally thanked the league’s American club owners, specifically pointing out Mediacom Communications chairman and CEO Rocco Commisso, who also owns the ACF Fiorentina team, for his help in landing the agreement. 

“Today it is not a point of arrival, but rather the beginning of a process of investments in human resources and editorial contents to support the continued growth of Serie A in the North America territory,” De Siervo said in the release. “This is the result of the work of the last 18 months and of the increasing number of American owners who have decided to invest in our teams. Finally, I would like to thank the President of Fiorentina Rocco Commisso for his important contribution to achieve this agreement.”

Rights Cost Went Up 30%

The deal that Paramount Plus signed was a 30% increase over the league’s last TV contract with ESPN Plus. ESPN was a late round bidder along with one other unnamed company,  but ultimately decided that the price was little too rich for its tastes.

ViacomCBS has been ultra-aggressive in snapping up soccer rights. In addition to the Serie A deal, the programmer has signed rights deals with the UEFA Champions League, Europa League, next season’s Europa Conference League, the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), Brasileiro Série A and Liga Profesional de Fútbol (the top leagues in both Brazil and Argentina), and various Concacaf matches

At ViacomCBS’s Feb. 24 Investor Day, CBS Entertainment chief George Cheeks said the programmer was “doubling down” on soccer rights, adding the sport presented the best opportunity to grab young eyeballs for both the linear and streaming networks.

“As we look to the future, we are making soccer a core pillar of sports exclusively available on Paramount Plus,” Cheeks said at the Investor Day. 

According to reports, Paramount had initially bid around $142 million for the rights, but bumped up that offer considerably in later rounds. 

While those reports didn’t offer an explanation for the increased offer, probably just chalking it up to normal bidding dynamics, Commisso may have provided a subtle nudge.

As the head of the fifth largest cable operator in the U.S., Mediacom obviously has a long-time professional relationship with Paramount Plus parent ViacomCBS and its CEO Bob Bakish. But Commisso and Bakish’s connection goes a little bit deeper. Both are graduates of Columbia University, and both left that Ivy League institution with degrees in industrial engineering and MBAs.   

“Rocco and I have enjoyed a long and productive professional relationship,” Bakish said in an email message.  “We look forward to working with Serie A and enhancing our strong lineup of live soccer coverage on Paramount+.” 

Commisso, who was born in Calabria, Italy and came to the U.S. with his family when he was 12 years old, is a huge soccer fan: he was co-captain of his alma mater’s men’s soccer squad in 1970, helping lead the school to compete in its first NCAA men’s soccer tournament that year. The Mediacom founder has been a huge booster of Columbia University soccer, donating millions of dollars to the school for its stadium and soccer programs. In 2017, Commisso dipped his toe into club ownership, buying the North American Soccer League’s (NASL) New York Cosmos. In 2019 he purchased ACF Fiorentina. ACF Fiorentina currently is ranked 14th out of 20 teams in Serie A. The Cosmos have been on pause since the COVID-19 outbreak. 

In an interview, Commisso said he imparted some of his soccer knowledge to Bakish, who he said is “a great guy” and a savvy negotiator in his own right. Talks for the U.S. rights to Serie A lasted about 18 months and  involved several parties. 

“We had a discussion,” Commisso said, adding that the conversation was mainly around the state of Italian soccer. “I was rooting for him to win it. Did he come up with every single dollar that I thought was the right ask? No. Was he better than everybody else? Yes. It would be fair to say that through my involvement, one: he got the bid and two: he increased the bid.”

Commisso has been pretty generous with his knowledge of the soccer game. He counseled Parma owner Kyle Krause, CEO of Krause Group, when he was considering buying the Parma team. Krause Group is based in Des Moines, Iowa, also one of Mediacom’s largest markets, and owns Italian wineries and hospitality businesses, as well as real estate and more than 400 gas station/convenience stores in the Midwest. Krause bought the Parma team in 2020. 

“He picked my brain and I helped him make his mind up,” Commisso said. 

Serie A is considered one of the “Big Five'' leagues in European football: The English Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, Germany’s Bundesliga and France’s Ligue 1 are the others. So landing the U.S. rights is a bit of a coup for Paramount. It doesn’t hurt that one of the most recognizable stars in soccerdom, Cristiano Ronaldo, plays for Turin-based Juventus, the 2019-20 Serie A champion.  

Matches Due Mostly On Paramount Plus

ViacomCBS hasn’t said yet how it will parse the games between the streaming and linear services. But it’s probably a good bet that the Ronaldo connection will be played up when it starts airing Serie A games in August. There are a lot of games to watch, which should only raise the profile of the league in general. Paramount Plus, the enlarged former CBS All Access, has the rights to air 400 matches each year -- 388 Serie A games, 25 Coppa Italia matches and the Supercoppa Italiana match (where the winners of Serie A and Coppa Italia meet in a what is akin to the Italian soccer Super Bowl) -- with select matches to be televised on CBS Sports and CBS Sports Network. 

But whatever the ultimate lineup, Commisso said the exposure could only be good for Italian soccer. 

“In Italy, they give some of the bigger teams preferential treatment when there are multiple games during the day,” Commisso said. “Not always but for the most part, they’ll make the last game the Game of the Week. We have games on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I’m sure they [Paramount] will utilize Ronaldo. If I were them I would do the same thing.”

Commisso said in Italian soccer, TV money isn’t split evenly among teams -- bigger teams get bigger shares -- but the additional cash will help the smaller clubs get better players and improve facilities. Adding to the coffers is the sale of Italian TV rights to the league, which went to streaming sports service DAZN for about €2.5 billion ($2.95 billion) over three years. DAZN bested Comcast-owned Sky, which had owned Serie A rights in Italy since 2003. Sky, according to reports, agreed to pay about €70 million ($82 million) for non-exclusive rights for a smaller package of games. 

Commisso also is encouraged by the growing number of American owners in Italian soccer. Today there are five clubs owned by Americans in the 20-team league: A.C. Milan, A.S. Roma, A.C.F. Fiorentina, Parma and Spezia Calcio. A sixth club, Bologna F.C., is owned by a Canadian.

That influx of American ownership has occurred only recently. In 2017, only one club, Roma, was U.S.-owned. Commisso said the new blood has been good for the league, bringing in a fresh perspective as well as money. Italian soccer, he added, has been held back by the condition of its stadiums, which are generally owned by the towns and cities the clubs play in and are leased back to the teams. But that means improvements have been few and far between. Commisso said the stadium where his club plays, Stadio Artemio Franchi, was first opened in 1931. And he believes as other Italian owners look to sell their clubs in the future, American businessmen should take advantage of the opportunity. Juventus's 10-year-old Allianz Stadium is one of the unusual club-owned arenas.

“I think there are going to be other sales taking place in the next 12 months,” Commisso said. “Is it going to be Americans? I can't say that for sure. But the fact that you have five American owners is changing things. We bring a new way of looking at things, some people don’t like it, and we have a big push to improve the infrastructure. We all want to get things done on the infrastructure side.”

Commisso himself is in the throes of building a new state-of-the-art sports complex near Stadio Artemio Franchi, to be called Viola Park, an €85 million ($99.6 million) project that would include training facilities and fields for men's and women's senior and youth soccer teams.  The project, which began construction earlier this year, has recently hit some regulatory snags.

Still, Commisso is confident that he will eventually get the project through.

“I’m a tough guy when it comes to most things,” Commisso said. “I’m not doing this to make money, I’m doing this to give back to soccer what soccer has done for me and to give back to my native Italy. It’s very hard for other people to understand that, but it is a fact.”