A billionaire cable TV empire owner does not own a yacht, private jet and mansion on a beach, instead he shelled out $170 million to buy an Italian pro soccer team.
Rocco Commisso, 73, bought ACF Fiorentina in Florence three years ago. His wife told him that if he insisted on buying a team, it needed to be somewhere nice. The price tag was also a bargain for a European club.
The American owner is under relentless scrutiny by Fiorentina fans who demand that he pay whatever it costs to bring in stars and end their 50-year championship drought. Fiorentina, which is nicknamed “La Viola” — “the Purple” — has not won a league championship since 1969. Fans, known as the Tifosi, got sick of waiting and ran the previous owner out of town.
“But they can’t kick Rocco outta here, you know? They think they, they gonna criticize me and kick me out. They, no, that can’t happen,” Commiso told 60 Minutes correspondent Sharyn Alfonsi. “Rocco’s a little different.”
That difference started with hustle he learned on the streets of the Bronx. Commisso grew up in southern Italy, but his family moved to the United States to escape poverty. His father and brother crossed the Atlantic first, followed by 12-year-old Commisso, his mother and his two sisters.
Commisso, whose net worth is $8 billion, doesn’t think he’d have been able to achieve the same level of success if he’d stayed in Italy.
“No way. This is truly the land of opportunity. It gave this poor soul, OK, yeah, the opportunity to become something, somebody,” he said. “And that’s the beauty of America.”
His American dream started with a deal to play accordion. Then 13, Commisso’s English was terrible, but he played a mean accordion. He agreed to perform free of charge at a Bronx theater if the manager helped him get into a Catholic all-boys’ school, Mount Saint Michael Academy. The manager sent a recommendation letter and Commisso was admitted to the school.
“I got lucky or hustled, whichever way you wanna call it,” he said.
Commisso kept hustling. He worked at his family’s luncheonette before and after school each day to pay his high school tuition.
“So I used to get paid $1 an hour, and through that $1 an hour, I paid four years of Mount Saint Michael schooling,” he said.
Commisso wanted to be an engineer, but a dollar an hour wasn’t going to cover the college tuition, so Commisso hunted down a scholarship. He hadn’t played much soccer since he came to the U.S., but he had always loved the sport, so he turned to it when he needed a scholarship.
Commisso asked his gym teacher to call an NYU coach, who then put Commisso on a team and watched him play for six days.
“He says, ‘Yeah, I like the kid. So let’s … let me help him get into NYU,’ which he did. And they gave me 50% scholarship, but that was not enough,” Commisso said. “So I then told the gym teacher, ‘Go and call the coach at Columbia now.’ In the space of three to four weeks they give me admissions to Columbia and a full scholarship.”
Commisso became team captain and led Columbia University to its first NCAA tournament.
After graduating and earning an MBA, Commisso made his way to Wall Street. At night, he helped his brother run a disco, where Commisso chose to play Italian pop music.
“I was really into Italian music and, and came up with this idea that by specializing in something as opposed to being just like anybody else, you know, we could do well,” he said. “And nobody could touch us in terms of the competition because nobody had it.”
Commisso carried that same mentality to the cable TV industry where he became an executive just as the business exploded. In 1995, he decided to start his own company, named Mediacom.
“What I foresaw is the fact that sooner or later, we’re gonna get deregulated, and there’s a great opportunity to do well in the smaller markets of the U.S., the rural markets, largely because nobody wanted them,” he said.
Commisso risked his life savings to buy up small systems. Again, timing and luck were on his side. Today, Mediacom provides broadband in 22 states. He works alongside his wife, sister and son. Despite the size of the business, Commisso says owning a soccer team is more difficult.
“I get more criticism here than in 1,500 communities in the U.S.,” Commisso said.
There’s been aggravation and, at times, Commisso has lost it with the unforgiving press, but the billionaire from the Bronx has never questioned buying the team.
“I made the decision. I’m gonna stick with the decision,” he said.
True to his way, Commisso’s playing the long game. He’s spending $100 million on Viola Park. Once completed, it will be one of the largest soccer facilities in Europe for developing young players.
Back in the U.S., he’s given millions to his alma maters and has contributed to scholarships for nearly 3,000 students across the U.S., including many first generation immigrants, like him.
Despite the costs, agita and ACF Fiorentina’s so-so season, Commisso still seems to love the business. He’s become one of the most famous Americans in Italy, but Commisso wants to be known as “Just Rocco.”
“I just wanna be known as the guy that, nothing, success, never changed him,” he said.