ROME (AP) – Europe’s soccer leagues are so full of teams owned and operated by American investors that the market could soon become saturated.
With this in mind, a diverse group of professionals studying through the Executive MBA program at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School turned to basketball and acquired a 90 percent interest in Italy’s top team Pallacanestro Trieste.
“We think we’re ahead of the next trend, which is going to be European basketballsaid Connor Barwin, a former NFL linebacker who is now the director of player development for the Philadelphia Eagles. “(Football) has become very expensive. And we see basketball as the next sport that’s going to bring a lot of investment because there’s a lot of value there.”
Barwin, along with Richard de Meo, CEO of brokerage firm Foenix Partners; finance attorney Fitzann Reid; corporate attorney Richard Johnson; John Jefferies, Memphis Grizzlies team cardiologist; and Canadian energy strategist Prab Sekhon form the Cotogna Sports Group, which recently completed the $5 million purchase of the Trieste team.
“We all go to Wharton and we’re all in our mid-thirties, successful people and an obsession with the sport brought us all together,” Barwin said. “And we decided to come together and start this venture to try to impact a community, a city, a team.”
Jefferies added during a recent Associated Press video interview with the owners, “What I love about our team is that everyone brings different skill sets.”
The only previous American possession in Italian basketball was the 1999 acquisition of Olimpia Milano by Italian-American entrepreneur Pasquale Caputo. Kobe Bryantwho learned to play in Italy while his father competed in the country, he was an investor in this acquisition.
Gianni Petrucci, President of the Italian Basketball Federation, welcomed the foreign investment.
“Nobody should be surprised or outraged,” Petrucci said. “This is the reality of globalization. If they came here, it means that the Italian league is still attractive.
“Trieste has everything,” added Petrucci. “They have good fans, a good arena and people who love basketball.”
As for the rest of European basketball, the most notable American owner is former Minnesota Timberwolves president David Kahn, who founded the Paris basketball team in 2018, which now plays in France’s top division.
For comparison, six of the 20 teams in Italy’s top football division have North American owners, while the Premier League has eight, including Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea.
However, basketball is a game that most Americans know better than soccer. Europe has produced elite talent, and the continent has long been a popular destination for US college players who fail to make the NBA.
In addition to soccer, Barwin briefly played college basketball at the University of Cincinnati.
“I’ve had some friends who didn’t make it into the NBA,” Barwin said. “So they went (went) and played across Europe.”
Trieste has six American players in its squad and is currently ranked eighth in the 16-team Lega Basket Serie A (LBA).
“Our goal is to bring the team to the top of the LBA and into the EuroLeague,” said Barwin.
The LBA is traditionally dominated by Milano and Virtus Bologna with 29 and 16 titles respectively.
The last time a team from Trieste won the Italian title was in 1941 when Ginnastica Triestina won its fifth championship.
Trieste’s next game is against Milano, owned by fashion designer Giorgio Armani.
“I’m looking forward to getting to know him and I’m looking forward to playing him and then working together when we’re not playing each other,” Barwin said of Armani.
While Barwin was hoping to attend the game against Milano, his trip to Trieste will have to wait as the Eagles advance to the Super Bowl.
Trieste has historical ties with the United States dating back to the days when the city was part of the Free Territory of Trieste after World War II and was controlled by British and American forces due to its strategic importance on the border as an independent state between Italy and Yugoslavia. American soldiers helped nurture the city’s passion for basketball during these years. And Trieste still boasts the visit of Michael Jordan in 1985 for an exhibition game.
The port city is still a cultural hub that sits alongside Italy’s modern-day borders with Slovenia and Croatia — two countries with large basketball followings.
“Location is really important,” Barwin said, adding that his group is on a long-term journey: “This is not a buy and sell. This is buying and improving and improving and improving.”
Trieste’s new owners spoke to American presidents of European football clubs for advice before entering a climate where die-hard ‘Ultra’ fans can often influence the way a team operates.
“I was told very early on by someone who owns a number of football clubs that you don’t own the team,” Barwin said. “You’re just the steward of this team. And I actually love that.
“When I was playing you just rented your locker to make it last in the NFL. You have to work every day. And if you don’t show your value or add your value, you’ll be replaced,” Barwin added. “We see it the same way. We’re just managers for this team and if we don’t show our worth to the fans, the players and the people who work at this stadium, someone will replace us. And that’s why we look forward to being stewards and leading this team to the top.”
Andrew Dampf can be reached at https://twitter.com/AndrewDampf
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