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The rejuvenation of Formula 1 under US group Liberty Media will surely be examined in business schools for years to come. But this week I got a sneak preview of a new series centred on the nonagenarian who turned F1 into a global business and paved the way for private equity to get into the sport. That’s right, Bernie Ecclestone is on screen to relive his experience. More recently in the news for his tax affairs and defending Vladimir Putin, Ecclestone is telling his own story in a sort of video autobiography. Director Manish Pandey, writer of the 2010 film on the life of Brazilian driver Ayrton Senna, spent much of the pandemic sifting through archive footage and piecing together the tale. It was a reminder of how much the sport has changed . ..
Speaking of change, it looks like
soccer football is finally cutting through in the United States, where millions of fans are tuning into the World Cup. Keep reading to find out why that’s extra impressive — and what it means for the future. We also dig into the family dynasty that owns Juventus, the Italian football club that’s defending its accounting methods.
By the way, we’ll be discussing the eventual result of the World Cup — and much more — at the next instalment of our Business of Football Summit on 1-2 March, 2023. Scoreboard subscribers can sign up for a complimentary digital pass using promo code PREMIUM23 or save £400 on your in-person pass to join us at The Biltmore Mayfair, on 2 March. Register here.
Do read on — Samuel Agini, sports business reporter
The World Cup group stage yielded a mixed bag for North America: Canada and Mexico were eliminated this week, while the United States squeaked through to the Round of 16 on what appeared to be a ball-busting goal (see Final Whistle below) to defeat Iran on Tuesday.
If the on-pitch performance for the next hosts of the quadrennial tournament leaves something to be desired, their television ratings may be making up for it: broadcasts of the Qatar World Cup are smashing records, even as the world’s biggest football fest runs for the first time against the busiest stretch of the North American sports calendar.
Fox, which holds English-language broadcast rights in the US across its cable and news networks in the US, has averaged 3.15mn viewers through the first 10 days of the World Cup, up 44 per cent from the equivalent period in the 2018 tournament, according to Sports Media Watch. NBC’s Telemundo and Peacock, which carry the region’s Spanish-language broadcasts and streaming, posted growth of 24 per cent viewership over the same period.
Critically, ratings for the US team present the most modern portrait of domestic viewer consumption, given it’s the stars and stripes’ first appearance in the World Cup since 2014, before the current rights deal with Fox took effect. (That year’s tournament was broadcast on ESPN and Univision.) Fox ratings for the US team average 11.7mn viewers through the group stage, up 10 per cent from eight years ago.
These ratings are extra impressive given the timezone differential (the US east coast is eight hours behind Qatar) and, most notably, driving against a packed schedule of National Football League and US college football games. The first full week of the World Cup coincided with the US Thanksgiving holiday, a traditional fest for both slices of the American football variety. The NFL calculated that 138mn people watched its games on Thanksgiving — more than 40 per cent of the US population — while that afternoon’s Giants-Cowboys game drew 42mn viewers, the highest-rated regular season NFL match on record.
Gridiron football clearly reigns supreme in the US, but early gains in viewership through the World Cup group stage are an encouraging sign for the global game in its most important growth market. The early match times are also ideal for families with children, who can watch whole games during the afternoons, unlike prime time sports after bedtime. With the Americans set to face the Netherlands today in the knockout round, time will tell if both the on-pitch and on-screen success continues.
You can watch our video on the legacy of the Qatar World Cup here.
Why Juventus is a problem for this family dynasty
The billionaire Agnelli family’s loyalty to Juventus football club has come back to bite.
The club’s directors, including chair Andrea Agnelli and vice-chair Pavel Nedvěd, resigned en masse this week, with Italian authorities upping the pressure over its approach to accounting since the coronavirus pandemic smashed revenues.
Turin prosecutors are seeking indictments for a dozen current and former Juventus executives for alleged market manipulation and false accounting. Uefa, European football’s governing body, is investigating the club’s finances.
Juventus said it is “convinced that it has always acted correctly”.
The debacle raises questions for John Elkann, grandson of Italian statesman-industrialist Gianni Agnelli, the modern-day family leader. The New York-born tycoon has been unafraid to make radical changes at Exor, the vehicle through which the Agnellis control Juve, having already shifted its headquarters from Italy to the Netherlands.
The history of the family and the club are deeply intertwined, going back around a century, but will trouble at Juve raise questions about the future? A person close to Exor insisted Juve isn’t up for sale.
Despite the financial woes and clashes with authorities, Juve barely registers in the Exor empire. Through the holding company, the family holds investments in Ferrari, The Economist magazine, and fashion brand Christian Louboutin.
With a net asset value of €29bn, Exor can afford to ride out short-term pain at a football club valued at €710mn on the stock market, even if the headlines in the short-term are unhelpful at best.
But European clubs are in high demand. There could be options if Exor is up for a discussion, particularly after Gerry Cardinale’s RedBird Capital Partners acquired AC Milan for €1.2bn earlier this year. We put together this video explainer of that deal.
There should be upside to improve performance at Juve, which has lost more than €550mn in the last three seasons. In a letter to shareholders in October, Andrea Agnelli said the annual loss of €254mn in the 2021-22 campaign was “certainly the gloomiest moment” from an “economic-financial point of view”.
Perhaps Exor wouldn’t relinquish control, but what would it say to a pitch from a strategic investor with a vision?
The best of the FT’s World Cup coverage this week
In blue and white, Lionel Messi has always operated in the shadow of Diego Maradona, who led Argentina to World Cup glory in 1986. Now that Argentina have emerged from the scare of losing to Saudi Arabia, Messi has another chance at the biggest prize on the international stage.
Gas-rich Qatar has been put under scrutiny for its human rights record, treatment of migrants and LGBTQ+ people. But its hosting of the World Cup has also been a rare source of unity in the Arab world.
The Qatari official in charge of delivering the 2022 World Cup has said that around 400 people died during the construction work associated with preparations for the tournament, a far higher figure than previously given.
What does it mean to support a football team, really? Increasingly flexible allegiances are coming to define international football, with fans happy to wear the colours of another nation than their own.
The Qatari owners of Paris Saint-Germain are targeting a valuation of more than €4bn in talks with potential investors that would set a new benchmark for a football club and boost expectations for others currently on the market.
The National Basketball Association will allow sovereign wealth and pension funds to buy into teams, according to Sportico, broadening the range of investors that can enter the sport. The move comes after the NBA previously relaxed its bylaws to permit private equity firms to take minority stakes in teams.
“I DIDN’T GET HIT IN THE BALLS.”
Has instantly entered the pantheon of great quotes in American History. ❤️🇺🇸 pic.twitter.com/dMcKfq1Lsq
— Men in Blazers (@MenInBlazers) December 2, 2022
Christian Pulisic has been the face of US football for the better part of a decade, after star turns at Borussia Dortmund and currently as a midfielder at Chelsea. He finally got his chance to cement his status with his first goal in a World Cup on Tuesday, the eventual winning score that sent the Americans to the knockout round — but not before Pulisic himself was knocked out on the very point itself. Iran goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand inadvertently collided with Pulisic directly between his legs, sending the Hershey, Pennsylvania native crumbling to the ground and out for the rest of the match.
With a must-win match against the Netherlands today, and Pulisic’s status throughout the week still tentative, the burning question on every American’s mind has been: how long, uh, does it take to recover from, you know, getting kicked between the legs? Pulisic himself gave a breakdown on Thursday.
Scoreboard is written by Josh Noble, Samuel Agini and Arash Massoudi in London, Sara Germano, James Fontanella-Khan, and Anna Nicolaou in New York, with contributions from the team that produce the Due Diligence newsletter, the FT’s global network of correspondents and data visualisation team
Source: Financial Times