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Exclusive Interview with the President of Venezia FC: Duncan Niederauer Unveils the Business Perspective of the Club.

Roger Hampel


Venezia FC Duncan Niederauer
Venezia FC Duncan Niederauer

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In an ever-evolving sports landscape, the fusion of business acumen and a passion for the game sets the stage for transformative leadership. Today, I  have the privilege of exploring the intricate journey of Duncan Niederauer, the President of Venezia FC. With a storied career that began within the strategic halls of Goldman Sachs, ascended to the leadership echelons of the NYSE, and now flourishes through the innovative endeavors of Transcend Capital Advisors and Communitas Capital Partners LLC, Duncan has now turned his expertise toward the enchanting canals of Venice to steer Venezia FC into new territories. Join us as we delve into his strategic vision that transcends the traditional confines of football, weaving the rich  Venetian culture with the global appeal of football.

 

Roger Hampel (Founder of Football Business Journal): Duncan, as the Founder & Managing Partner of Transcend Capital Advisors, Partner & Co-Founder of Communitas Capital Partners LLC, and former CEO of NYSE, as well as a former partner at Goldman Sachs, what led you to the sports industry and to become part of the Venezia FC's story?

 

Duncan Niederauer (President of Venezia FC): I think it's a great question. All of those chapters in my career have things in common. I believed I could make a difference at the exchange. I aimed to leave it better than I found it. I saw myself as the right person to help get it back on track when I stepped into that role at the stock exchange. That was quite an opportunity, quite a life experience.

 

When we started Transcend, I believed that many families are underserved by the current wealth management model. With the right partners, we would have a chance to do something much better for the families we take care of and improve their lives. I felt the same way when I came to Venice.

 

My wife and I love this city; we love Italy. And I thought there was not only a business opportunity here but also an opportunity to do something very special for a city that we love.

 

So the theme in my career is: if you leave it better than you found it, you continue to look for those opportunities where you think you can make a difference in people's lives. That's been true with Transcend.

 

That's kind of why I find myself here in Venice. I never played soccer as a kid. I played a lot of sports, but soccer, or football, was not one of them.

 

I didn't really know much about how a football team is operated, but I was drawn to this because of the city where the team is. And I thought we could really improve the situation here.

 

Roger Hampel (Founder of Football Business Journal): Could you elaborate on how the Venezia FC’s business model is distinct from other football clubs, especially in terms of partnerships and revenue streams? 

 

Duncan Niederauer (President of Venezia FC): I think we're getting there, Roger, but I don't think we're there yet. But I'll tell you what the ambition is.

 

The ambition is that there are a handful of cities in the world that have football teams with their own international brand. You'd mention Paris, Barcelona, and in Italy, perhaps Rome, Milan, Florence, and Venice. There aren't many cities around the world that offer the privilege of playing in a location that brings its own brand and reputation.

 

Our perspective in Venice is that if you establish the right building blocks, you can develop a much more diversified business model than many football teams you might have studied during your graduate program. What do I mean by that? As you're aware, most teams heavily depend on player sales and their performance in leagues—whether they get promoted or relegated. We acknowledge these will always be factors, but we aim to create a situation where, if we maintain steady performance from the first team, if we invest in a growing youth academy—which we can discuss further—if we have a venue we can monetize not just on match days but in other ways, and if we can leverage the brand of the city to build a global brand, then you have a diversified revenue stream that most soccer teams can only dream about. You can dream about it here, not because of us, but because of where we play.

 

Roger Hampel: You have everything to succeed with having also a great location. Venezia FC also went beyond football, but it evolved into a fashion brand. It went viral, the whole internet was talking about it. So, what was the process of this transformation, of this rebranding? Could you share the key strategies of this rebranding?

 

Duncan Niederauer: I'm not a marketing person by training. I was blessed to have really good people on the team when we tried to make this transition. All we said to the team was, in a city like Venice, we should aspire to operate at that intersection of football, fashion, and culture, probably in that order.

 

We can't forget we're a football team first and foremost. We have the city of Venice, and we have the football team that plays in Venice. Then the question is, what can you build on top of that foundation? Our view was to test the idea to see if we were right, to see if we could... Most cities couldn't even pretend to operate at that intersection, but we thought, let's try. To be honest, Roger, I think we were surprised at how quickly it went viral. It was so viral and so present that the media here would ask me if it's too bad we didn't spend more on the team because we were busy spending so much on media.

 

And I would tell them, we didn't spend anything on media. Every article written about us was free media. They wanted to write about us because it captivated everyone's attention.

 

So, there's that old cliché, sometimes it's better to be lucky than smart. I think in this case, we were both. We had the right idea, and we did it at a moment when the field was open, and the team did a great job.

 

Fast forward to today, Roger, and 95% of our merchandise sales are to people who don't live in Italy. It's pretty amazing for a small team that's only been in Serie A once in the last 20 years. It actually is.

 


Venezia FC Duncan Niederauer
Venezia FC Duncan Niederauer

FOT: Venezia FC

 

Roger Hampel: It's fascinating. That's also a great marketing case study of going beyond football and creating something more from the sports brand. Do you find yourself as a catalyst for other football clubs to go beyond football?

 

Duncan Niederauer: Think about it. There's a lot of potential for many football clubs to do something more. When people call to ask us that question, the first thing I say is, 'We have to be very clear. Please don't think we have some secret formula. We're very lucky to have Venice as the backdrop.' A lot of teams that would try to do this must have a city like this as a backdrop.

 

What Manchester has achieved with Man United and Man City is incredible. Most people don't think of Manchester as a tourist destination, but they know it because of the football teams there. That's pretty remarkable and quite unusual.

 

So, to other clubs that ask me about this, I say, 'We've only scratched the surface. We have much further to go.' It's great that we sell more jerseys than ever before. My next ambition is for us to emulate PSG and what they accomplished with the Jordan brand. That, to me, is amazing.

 

They use the city of Paris, and let's be honest, many people who buy PSG apparel in Asia or the U.S. may have never seen a PSG game. They like the brand and associate with it. We have a long way to go to even begin to touch what's possible there. I'm very humble about it.

 

We've done some things right, but we have a long, long way to go. We have some ideas of where we can go next, and some of that will become clearer to people very soon.

 

Roger Hampel: You said 95% of the orders were from abroad. Which new global markets are you targeting for expansion? I'm sure that you're thinking about international expansion.

 

Duncan Niederauer: We're thinking a lot about that.

 

We believe the approach we're going to take will differ from our methods so far. Currently, our top markets are the U.S., the U.K., Germany, and then Korea and Japan are tied for the fourth spot in terms of where we sell our merchandise.

 

The next step we're about to take involves nearing the final stages of signing an agreement with someone I would describe as a global brand ambassador. This individual has an intriguing demographic following in both sports and fashion. The plan is to co-create a new apparel line and also co-design our approach to the global market with this partnership.

 

The strategy includes overlaying the demographics of the ambassador's followers with our target demographics, informed by our current success and the appeal of our brand. We aim to elevate our brand to an entirely new level. However, I don't think you'll see the fruits of this partnership until next year, as we are just starting to collaborate.

 

We need to figure out what to design, how to launch it, and where to best market it. But our ambition with this partnership extends far beyond just selling more jerseys. They have already helped us co-design next year's kit, yes.

 

Yet, we want to go much further than just the kit. With their help, I'm confident we'll sell more jerseys next year, Roger, but we don't want to stop there. We believe there's a much bigger world out there for us to explore.

 

Roger Hampel: And what about local market?

 

Duncan Niederauer: The good news is I think we've already laid the foundation for that. If you and I had come to Venice 10 years ago and you didn't know there was a team here, you wouldn't have found any evidence of one. There were no flagship stores, no presence of the club here a decade ago. When my wife and I first heard about this opportunity, I was unaware myself. From the U.S., I don't really follow European football much. I loved the city but didn't know they had a team or about the history of several bankruptcies and many problems.

 

So, what have we done in the last two or three years? We've worked to make the brand more visible and more discoverable. Now, we have two shops in Venice. If you walked by these shops, you'd be surprised. They don't look like sports apparel stores but more like high-end luxury fashion brand stores. They're very elegant, not cluttered, and the racks aren't packed with merchandise.

 

We also moved the mainland store to the new training center I'm at right now. So when there are activities or when fans want to engage with the team, they come to the training center and visit the shop here. Consider this: two years ago, we did no sales to tourists because there was nothing for them to buy. Now, those two shops will probably do 2 million in revenue this year. And we don't advertise; we just placed them in the right locations in Venice, and people find them.

 

Venezia FC Duncan Niederauer
Venezia FC Duncan Niederauer

Venezia FC’S Rialto Bridge Store / FOT: Venezia FC

 

Roger Hampel: That was also my first thought actually. When I was in Venice, I bought this shirt in Venice. I felt like I'm doing shopping in a very luxury store in Milan, in Galleria Vittorio Emanuele instead of typical football club’s store.

 

Duncan Niederauer: That's exactly the mood we're trying to create.

 

Behaving like a fashion brand, we're creating fashion posters. These posters you've seen resemble what might be done for Chanel's events rather than typical football club event advertisements. It was a bit of both, spontaneous and planned. I'd like to clarify that.

 

Looking at our last three campaigns, I think you'd notice some consistency with what you're suggesting. We want people to view our football jersey not just as sportswear but as a versatile piece of apparel. Something that both men and women can wear casually on the street, not only to a match.

 

The best example is the gold third jersey from a year or two ago. I see it everywhere—people wear it with jeans or a sweater, and it looks good. In the two other years, including this year and two years back, we had one in the classic Venetian burgundy and another as a tribute to the gondolieri.

 

We ensure it's not solely about fashion; we tie it back to Venice, the city we represent. Even though the home jersey is typically the most popular—the one you're wearing today—this year's third jersey has gained a lot of popularity. It's designed with blue and white stripes, a red collar, gold numbers on the back, and the gold logo on the front. It transcends the typical football jersey look, while also honoring the history of Venice. Does that make sense?

 

Roger Hampel: How does Venezia FC utilize its unique Venetian identity to enhance the experience for its fans, creating additional value not just for the supporters but for the brand itself?

 

Duncan Niederauer: Let's think about how we did the photo shoots this year, right? For the home jersey, we used typical fashion models and didn't film them at the headquarters. We filmed them on the canal, in front of a palazzo in Venice—a beautiful place. We're so fortunate to have that as our backdrop because it's essentially free.

 

For the away jersey this year, I personally reached out to the patriarch of the Cipriani family. Anyone familiar with Venice knows how intertwined the family's brand is with the city. This gentleman is the head of the family's operations globally and especially here in Venice. I didn't know him well, but I asked if he would participate in the launch of the away jersey. Within five minutes, he said he would be honored.

 

That photo shoot was of him on his boat, in his canal, and in front of Harry's Bar with the new jersey. Some questioned why we would have someone of his demographic and age model our jersey. It's not about appealing to a specific group—it's about respect for the city and what his family represents here.

 

You either like the jersey or you don't, but when you see it in the context of Venice, it may change your perception. For the third jersey, our models were actual gondoliers—on their gondolas, in their environment. What could be more traditional and respectful? We were conveying that this was to honor them. We invited them to be part of the photo shoot.

 

It allows people to dream a bit bigger about the brand and how they perceive what they're purchasing. It's a perfect way to remain authentic, retain our identity, while also creating something unique that has become a strong, viral brand worldwide.



Venezia FC
Venezia FC

Away Jersey 2023/2024. "A simple, elegant, and nostalgic design inspired by the 1990s". FOT: Venezia FC

 

Roger Hampel: In case of looking for new partners, what are the main criteria that the Venezia FC is looking for? I know many authentic teams that are very strict regarding the partnerships that want to keep the proper sponsorship fit. How about Venezia FC and keeping this unique Venetian identity, but also having a collaborative approach?

 

Duncan Niederauer: Yeah, it's another great question.

 

We've really wrestled with this, because, realistically, as much as outsiders think we've found a global brand solution, we've only been at it for three years. Three years ago, the club didn't have any sponsors, not even local ones. No one paid attention to this team, and Venetian brands that you'd expect to want a connection with us, well, we hadn't earned that right yet. Now, we're slowly earning it. In the future, especially if our work with the brand ambassador goes as planned, we believe we can attract a different set of sponsors.

 

Our current sponsors are very loyal, fantastic partners, but they're all local. We don't have meaningful international sponsors yet. We have to remain humble. We're not established enough to start dictating terms.

 

We hope to gain more attention, and if we do so thoughtfully, respectfully, and with the brand ambassador's help to amplify our visibility, we'll be able to have conversations we've never had before. But dictating terms would be premature and a bit arrogant at this stage.

 

Our next step is to broaden the potential sponsor base and see where that leads. Last year, we played in the shirt you're wearing now, branded with 'Citta di Venezia' rather than a sponsor—it wasn't due to a lack of sponsorship deals but part of a plan to incrementally enhance the brand's appeal. This will, in turn, elevate the brand's value in the future.

 

In our shops, we've agreed with our sponsors that we're not obligated to display their logos. Sponsorships are primarily for the media attention during televised matches. Some fans prefer jerseys with sponsor logos, but the majority want them to feature 'Venezia' or 'Citta di Venezia' only. We've reached a no-stress agreement with our sponsors that in our shops, you'll find jerseys like the one you're wearing, without sponsor logos.

 

I recall the Juventus jersey when Jeep was the sponsor. If you're Juventus in Turin, aligning with a sponsor like Jeep might make sense because fans associate with it. But for us, Venezia is the brand, the city is the brand—more than any sponsor or even ourselves.

 

We're also trying to reflect that in our approach. It's been fascinating for me, especially seeing the beautiful shirts that football clubs present.

 


Venezia FC
Venezia FC

A nostalgic and elegant tribute to the iconic gondolier's uniform. FOT: Venezia FC

 


Roger Hampel: Sometimes, football clubs sell stylish jerseys for around 100 euros that bear sponsor logos some fans don’t connect with. Worn abroad, like in the U.S., these shirts often seem more like sponsor ads than signs of club support.

 

Duncan Niederauer: It’s fascinating to me that we might have been the first team ever to think about selling the shirts in-store without the sponsor. I believe the sponsors understand why that probably makes sense. And that's reflected in our arrangement.

 

If the sponsors wanted us to sell the jerseys with their branding, then we’d be talking about a different kind of sponsorship relationship. Because that would mean their brand is getting a lot more exposure than it would otherwise. So, it's just a business decision for both parties. But in our shops, we'd much prefer to sell the jerseys you see right now, without the sponsor branding.

 

Roger Hampel: Coming back to the internationalization and your global vision, you said that you’re inspired by PSG, you want to build the strong brand, recognizable all around the world.

 

Duncan Niederauer: It took them 10 years, Roger, when you think about it. And they had one of the most relevant brand icons in the world in one of the most amazing cities in the world. Ten years later, it's an incredible business.

 

But it took time, right? So, we have to be patient. It starts with the foundation we've laid. Then we add a brand ambassador on top, someone who commands attention in both sports and fashion. From there, it's about building incrementally, step by step.

 

The next thing you know, we're still a small club, but even a fraction of the success PSG has had would significantly improve our enterprise value. It diversifies our revenue and it’s high-margin business.

 

Roger Hampel: What about the sporting perspective? I think you have a huge chances to be promoted to the first division. Do you already have some branding plans or other business plans for the promotion?

 

Duncan Niederauer: It's funny that you ask that because, you know, in football, you win a few matches in a row and suddenly there's a buzz. My wife and I, we spend a lot of time with the fans when we're here before the matches. We actually watch the matches from the Curva with the fans at the stadium. They all want to talk, saying, 'President, President, Serie A, Serie A!' And I have to remind them, we have 16 matches left.

 

We should aspire to move up, but our near-term plans should reflect humility. We have business plans that assume we remain in Serie B, but we also plan for what we can do if we move up. Advancing to Serie A would accelerate everything we've been discussing over the last 30 minutes. It would make it easier to engage those global markets we touched on earlier.

 

Activating the brand ambassador is much simpler if we're in Serie A, with every match on TV in the US and many games against well-known, big, famous teams. It could speed up our business plan much faster. But that doesn’t mean we can’t continue to grow in Serie B. Look at PSG: they’re a successful team, even though they don't win the Champions League every time. They've shown that careful brand management and building can lead to success without being the top champion.

 

Serie A would indeed give us the chance to move faster, but we must have a business plan that reflects our current position until we prove we can ascend. Maybe I'm just a superstitious sports fan, but we understand the opportunity we have. But yes, moving up to Serie A would certainly accelerate our plans a lot, and that would be fantastic.

 

Roger Hampel: You're a strong brand enough, despite of the sporting results! And what about investing in youth Academy? 

 

Duncan Niederauer: There's a lot there. I'm not sure if it's the right answer or not, and one could argue that since we've been involved over the last four years, maybe we've invested too much, too quickly. History will decide. But when we took over in 2020, most of the players were on loan; the club didn't own many assets. There was no real Youth Academy, the stadium was falling apart, and the training center was subpar. Our relationship with the women's team was nominal.

 

We made a list of all the things we wanted to do in addition to investing in the brand. In the four years since then, we now own the assets on the first roster. We have, I believe, the third youngest team in Serie B. We brought in three guys from Barcelona’s youth academy to rebuild ours, and three years into this effort, we're starting to see the fruits of our labor. This is the third year we've had our own women’s team, who now play their matches here at the training center, with their own dedicated facilities that we built for them. They feel very supported, and we had probably five or six hundred fans at their match here on Sunday.

 

What made me happiest was seeing many little girls waiting to meet the players after the match. This didn’t happen three years ago. It's exciting to see women being looked up to by young girls in the same way boys look up to the first team's players. The academy is bearing fruit, the women's team is important not just because it's the right thing to support women's sports, but because I think in four or five years, it will also be a valuable part of our enterprise.

 

We've built a new training center, refurbished the stadium, grown the brand, and there's a new stadium in the works by the municipality that should be ready in three years. It will be bigger, more accessible, and modern. You have to put all these pieces in place; otherwise, you don’t have a business. It was expensive, but it's the foundation for future success.

 

Venezia FC
Venezia FC

FOT: Venezia FC

 

Roger Hampel: Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, the former CEO of Bayern Munich and current board member of Bayern and UEFA, revealed at the Spobis conference that John Henry, who acquired Liverpool, also owns the Boston Red Sox (MLB), Pittsburgh Penguins (NHL), asked him if he could explain soccer to him. He said that in the United States, buying a sports franchise comes with a return on investment due to club’s excellent sporting performance. In Liverpool it was different, even during successful times.

Karl mentioned that in soccer franchises, profit is made mostly by selling the club, so if he bought the club for 700 million pounds, it could now be sold for around 5 billion pounds. 

 

Looking at a sports club as an asset, how do you assess the change in the financial value of Venezia FC in 2024 compared to 2020?

 

Duncan Niederauer: It's really night and day, right? When we took over in 2020, the club was on the verge of bankruptcy. We had no player assets, no infrastructure assets—essentially, we had nothing. We've spent a lot of money, so if you were to look at our financials, you might say it's not a very valuable enterprise since we haven't made money yet. But the investment was about establishing the foundational building blocks.

 

We're now bringing some new investors into the club, and they're setting the valuation for the club at the moment. I think the real test will come in the next five years. All I'm trying to do is set us up so that whether we get promoted or not, we're in a good position. Sure, promotion would help enterprise value, but only if you stay promoted does it truly enhance value. Going up and down helps somewhat, but not significantly.

 

Our strategy involves operating the new stadium, when it comes online, as a major revenue source—not just for football matches. We plan to open more shops like the ones we have in Venice, work with the brand ambassador to build a global brand, create an apparel business, and strategically utilize the assets from the first team and the youth academy. The goal is to achieve consistent, non-volatile results, and build a franchise that can ascend to the first division and maintain its position.

 

To significantly increase our enterprise value five years from now, we don't need to accomplish all these objectives—just some of them. We're putting a lot of lines in the water. We may not know which will work, but we're positioned to execute on these initiatives. Now, we don't have to spend more on infrastructure, we don't need to buy many players since we own them, we don't need to build a youth academy or a brand—they're already established. Our focus for the next three to five years is monetizing these efforts.

 

It's a stark difference from where we were in 2020, but we're far from finished. That's the challenge—it takes a long time to do it right.

 

Roger Hampel:  For my last questions I would like to ask you what specific goals do you have for 2024?

 

Duncan Niederauer: Right, I think we've covered a lot of ground, but there are a couple of big things we hope to achieve this year. The first is to introduce our brand ambassador and elevate the brand to an entirely new level. That's the primary goal.

 

On the sporting side, our aspiration, of course, is to get promoted. However, we must acknowledge that we're only 60% through the season. We've earned our current position in the table through our performance, and now it's about maintaining that level of play. I've communicated to the players, and I'm about to reiterate to the media, the reason why we haven't bought any new players. The message is: the guys in the locker room have what it takes. We don't lack anything; we have a really good team. I want to give them the opportunity to finish the job they've started, without making sweeping changes. We don't need to change anything; we're not missing any pieces.

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