It’s no surprise that Wharton MBA Program for Executives students and alumni often end up working together. What starts as a lunchtime conversation between classmates could easily lead to the development of a new company, business partnership, or investment. Just ask the members of Cotogna Sports Group (CSG), an investment group founded by second-year students Prab Sekhon, Fitzann Reid, Richard Johnson, Richard De Meo, John Jefferies, and Connor Barwin, WG’23. United by a passion for sports and business, the group closed its first deal this year with the acquisition of top-tier Italian basketball team Pallacanestro Trieste. They took a time-out of their busy schedules to explain how the Wharton MBA Program for Executives experience helped with this new business venture.
Can you share more about your backgrounds and how you became connected?
Prab Sekhon: It honestly started as a lunchroom conversation. Halfway through our second semester, Richard Johnson and I were talking about sports and the conversation evolved into the prospect of moving into sports acquisitions maybe 10 or 20 years down the road. The common thread with our group is that sports are meaningful to us in some way on a deeper level. Sports have been integral to my family fabric: we’ve had three generations of international athletes and I was fortunate to compete on the Canadian national karate team for four years. I’ve been an avid sports fan all my life.
Richard Johnson: I played tennis in college and professionally, but I didn’t enter this program with deep sports business knowledge. Our group of friends would always talk about how our dream was to own a professional sports team, but we never thought it would happen so quickly. WEMBA does that to you; it helps you think big and gives you the tools to achieve what you previously thought you couldn’t do.
Fitz Reid: My dad played professional soccer in Jamaica, so I grew up surrounded by a passion for the sport. I played soccer in college and coached before going to law school. I’ve always thought about sports ownership, but especially as a woman, and as a Black woman, I wasn’t sure when or if that opportunity would present itself. When this idea started forming between us to explore sports acquisitions, I thought, Absolutely! Let’s do it.
John Jefferies: I completed the first year of the EMBA program with the Philadelphia cohort and switched to the San Francisco cohort for the second year. I met a lot of good friends on the Wharton San Francisco campus including Prab, Fitz, Richard, and Richard. By day, I’m the Memphis Grizzlies team cardiologist, so I have a connection to the NBA and understand a good amount about professional sports. Prab asked if I was interested, and I looped in Connor Barwin from the Philadelphia cohort because of his expert sports industry knowledge. This is a prime example of how students in the Wharton MBA Program for Executives connect across coasts and cohorts.
How did you get introduced to Pallacanestro Trieste?
Prab: Most of us took Professor Rob DiGisi’s Sports Management course in the second year of the program. Prior to the class we reached out to him about an independent study to understand the economics of sports acquisition and the major drivers behind financial success. A month after the course ended, Rob pinged us and said he knew of a contact in Trieste, Italy looking to sell their LBA team. It felt like the stars were aligning, and that’s really where it started.
Richard DeMeo: I got a call from Prab about a potential opportunity with this Italian basketball team. The timing was fortunate because I was about to go to Italy for a summer holiday. I planned to make the five-hour drive to Trieste to discuss the deal with the team. Trieste is a stunning city in the northeast corner of Italy, bordering Slovenia. It’s about two hours from Venice, and because it’s so far away it’s become known as ‘Italy’s forgotten gem.’ Being able to go there in person, tour the stadium, and connect face-to-face with the team was a huge bonus. Pallacanestro Trieste president Mario Ghiacci and his lawyers were very welcoming and told a compelling story about the legacy and potential of the team. I was quite clear about the fact that we didn’t necessarily have deep industry knowledge, but we had a network of value and a lot of interest and enthusiasm, which ties in with what they were looking for. Connor and John’s professional sports industry experience really bolstered our credibility, as well.
What is it like owning a professional sports team?
Fitz: We’ve done a good job of breaking out roles and responsibilities within CSG by leveraging our backgrounds. Connor and John understand the needs of players, coaches, and staff, and work on that side of the business. Richard de Meo has an ability to see things at a high level and spends a lot of time working on strategy and vision. Prab manages the P&L and focuses on operational improvement, and Richard Johnson and I have the legal background. Right now, we’re all working together to make the team more accessible and attractive to younger generations.
Connor: The vision is to take this team to the top of the LBA. We’re very active in this transition period, and we want to engage with the fans, coaches, and players as we ride with them to the top of the league. Long term, we’ll guide strategy, implement the core values of the club, and hire leadership within the club to achieve our goal of entering the EuroLeague within five to seven years. We all bring unique talents to this group, and it gives me confidence knowing we have our Wharton MBAs to help us move our vision forward.
Richard De Meo: Our goal is to take Pallacanestro Trieste to the European Cups, and by working as a team with this group of people I’ve been fortunate enough to meet at Wharton, I have confidence we will get there.
How did your experience in the Wharton EMBA program influence the Pallacanestro Trieste deal?
Fitz: Sports Management with Rob DiGisi gave us a solid understanding of where the sports industry is headed on a global scale. We learned about current trends not just in the United States, but all over the world. Basketball is of growing interest in Europe, and viewership is going up. Everything we learned in that class in terms of the European sports industry helped us make the decision to move forward with Pallacanestro Trieste.
Richard Johnson: I walked away from Rob’s class with a solid understanding of how the sports industry works. The course gave us a high-level understanding of the organizational structure of sports leagues, revenue streams, licensing, sponsorship, emerging leagues… it’s a complicated business, and now I know the jargon. It made me feel confident moving forward with Pallacanestro Trieste.
Richard DeMeo: What we learned in Rob’s course helped us with our due diligence. Italy is not an obvious market, but we analyzed the European sports market and learned that basketball viewership is going up. When you look at the analytics, you see a massive increase in NBA Season Pass Europe over the last five years. Viewership is increasing in the LBA, Milan is selling out stadiums, and EuroLeague is more popular than ever. A whole lot of these teams are becoming more competitive.
Prab: Over the last decade there’s been significant American investment pouring into the Italian soccer market. While basketball is the second most popular sport in Italy, the professional market hasn’t attracted the same attention and teams are undervalued. Trieste is an interesting region: basketball is more popular than soccer. Over 50 years, Pallacanestro Trieste has amassed a “ride or die” fan base and is nestled in close proximity to basketball hotbeds like Slovenia and Croatia. We saw a team with a storied history and untapped potential in a unique and affluent part of Italy. It was difficult to disprove the business case.
John Jefferies: Negotiations with Professor Gus Cooney was another course which directly impacted the way I approached this business venture. This was a purchase on our end, and there was a lot to consider. The course improved my ability to negotiate by giving me a toolbox full of negotiation tactics. Developing a strategic negotiation plan is crucial when working in sports acquisitions and all aspects of business.
Connor: I’ll admit I was hesitant about Pallacanestro Trieste at first because I’m deep into sports and know how complicated it can be to acquire a team. My Global Business Week experience in Buenos Aires, Argentina helped me see things from a new perspective. Prab, Richard, and I took “Doing Business in Times of Uncertainty” with Professor Zeke Hernandez, where we learned about operating businesses in unstable markets. I came away from that week feeling much more confident about the deal than when I arrived, not just because I got to know Prab and Richard more, but because of what I learned. In unstable business environments, how do you make your business an “unstoppable force?” Sports is not an emerging industry, but I’ve worked in the NFL long enough to see how it’s evolving with streaming, media content, and storytelling. This course reaffirmed to me how powerful sports are and gave me confidence in the potential of this team.
What does the future look like for CSG?
Fitz Reid: When we formed CSG, we wanted to find the best opportunities available. Pallacanestro Trieste is the first of many for us. We want to get into other sports and acquire other teams, whether internationally or in the U.S. Women’s professional soccer is exploding right now, so that might be a space we go for next. There are so many opportunities out there to get good deals on really good teams and we want to look at all of them.
John Jefferies: This is not a finite endeavor for us. It’s a global effort. When you get a group of WEMBA students together with a common vision, the aspirations are high.
Richard Johnson: We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the Wharton EMBA program. We’ve had huge support from other WEMBA classmates not just as investors, but as connectors leading us to additional opportunities and sponsors. The Wharton network has been a huge help, and we look forward to working with our classmates and students across other cohorts as we pursue opportunities in the future.
Posted: February 15, 2023