I was a young guy without a lot of experience but with tremendous ambition…
Riccardo Silva, founder and President of MP&Silvaon the passion for sport and media which inspired a powerhouse global agency.
And according to Riccardo Silva, founder and president of MP&Silvait is a journey which has been fuelled by passion and which still has many exciting miles to run.“I believe that everything has to be done with passion if it is to be successful and I have a real passion for both sports and the media business”, said Silva at the company’s offices in central London. But things could have turned out very differently had he followed the path mapped outfor him and joined the family business manufacturing detergents on the outskirts of Milan. The chemical industry’s loss has proved to be sports media’s gain.
“My grandfather founded the company, now known as DESA Group, and three generations of the family have worked there”.
“Of course it seemed obvious that I should follow them but when I finished my studies I wanted to take a year off to do something else before joining them. While I was attracted to idea of the family business on many levels, something made me postpone – perhaps it was just the idea that manufacturing detergent isn’t so sexy!”.
In the end his ‘gap year’ became a career and life-defining choice which has seen him grow a business now turning over some $500 million a year, but he is appreciative of the role played by his family in his current success.
“I realise that I was lucky to be able to enjoy the financial support of the family when I needed to invest in the business”, said Silva who remains a board member of DESA.
“They understood what I wanted to achieve because they all share my passion for sport”.
Silva’s twin passion for media was fostered during a childhood in Italy where the sports TV landscape was as barren as in most other European countries at the time.
“Football was the most important sport and it was all on the state channel”, he said.
“Nothing was live but everybody watched TV on Saturday for an hour of highlights of Serie A games followed by the second half of the Game of the Day which was shown in its entirety even though everybody knew the result!”.
Despite the quality of the offering it was enough to fire the enthusiasm of a youngster who continues to be driven by the intellectual and business challenges of a complex and intriguing global marketplace and the desire to do things differently.
Like every successful entrepreneur, Silva has proved adept at recognising fresh opportunities and he spent that ‘gap year’ developing MP Web, a 50/50 joint venture with Media Partners, the Italian company ( now owned by Infront) which had made its mark on the industry with its then explosive plans for a breakaway Champions League featuring Europe’s top football clubs.
“I knew some of the people at Media Partners and saw how they were dealing with TV rights and I saw that with the growth of the internet there were opportunities to develop ways of trading rights in this medium as well”.
“I was a young guy without a lot of experience but with tremendous ambition and, thanks to my family, I was able to invest a little money to see how things developed. I thought I would only do it for a year and then let somebody else come in and run it”, he said.
“We had some significant success as streaming winter sport and European basketball and I really enjoyed it for a couple of years but a realised than new media rights were still a small slice of the cake and that the big value was in TV”.
“I decided to take the time to study the market from the inside and I found it fascinating. Media rights is still a young business – after all it has only really existed since the 1970s in the USA and the 80s in Europe”.
But it is a business which came to engage and enthral him as much for the intellectual challenge of navigating passages through largely uncharted waters as for the excitement of the commercial adventure. In short Silva ‘fell in love’ with the business and there was simply no way back to the world of detergent. That said he admits that there
were those who thought he was crazy when he took the fledgling MP & Silva into the market in 2002.
“My focus was on Serie A rights and, at the time, every club sold the rights to its own home games and none of the contracts were aligned. On top of this RAI and SportFive had a joint venture to buy up and sell rights and this made it not only a complex market but one which was extremely difficult to break into”.
“But I decided to take the risk knowing that I would lose money for the first few years. I started with the rights for just two teams – Messina who had just been promoted and Fiorentina but the next year had added another two. By 2007 we had basically acquired the entire league and my strategy had worked. The plan had always been to create a base around Serie A and use that as a platform from which to acquire other rights. The Italian League gave us the credibility we needed to develop into new sports and new territories”.
Silva retains his fondness for Italian football and, in particular, AC Milan whom he supports with the same passion which underscores his business life, and whose own TV Channel MP& Silva continues to operate. But, he admits, there were times when the currency of Serie A was seriously diminished on an international front as it was rocked by bribery and match fixing scandals and crowd violence which, on one notorious occasion, led to the death of a policeman at a game.
“It was a difficult path but early on we decided not to put all of our efforts into one property do that we wouldn’t be dependent upon it”, Silva said.
“We now have a portfolio of more than 60 different sets of rights including the English Premier League. Serie A is among those rights and is close to my heart but if we were in a position where we didn’t hold the rights in future it wouldn’t change anything”.
“The strength of the agency is not to be dependent on one product and to achieve the balance in the portfolio which enables you to create attractive packages”.
“We didn’t go into business with a view to adopting a particular style – it came quite naturally”, he explained.“This is a personal business and you have to develop on two levels. First it is global but you need local knowledge and that means having people on the ground who know the rights holders and broadcasters, who have their trust and meet them of a daily basis. That way they develop the personal relationship and mutual respect which allows you to help them and deal with any problems should they occur”.
The MP& Silva style of doing business goes beyond its global representation. Riccardo Silva believes the way the company and its people operate is critical and he talks of operating as a family which maintains a warmth both internally and in its dealings with clients.
So what were the ‘back of the net’ moments Silva has experienced as he, his fellow shareholders and the team have grown the business? Two spring immediately to mind.
“I think the first was our first major non football deal when we acquired the rights to Roland Garros (French Open Tennis) which had previously been handled by Eurosport. That deal changed the perceptions of us within the industry quite significantly”, he said.
“Then in 2008/09 we landed Major league Soccer. Now MLS may not be one of the world’s most important leagues but the deal was long-term and worldwide and that too get people thinking about us and changing their view of what we offered”.
These deals may have been landmarks but barely a fortnight goes by without the company announcing a new agreement in some part of the world or another and it is this continuing evolution which appears to excite Riccardo Silva the most.
“We are moving on all the time. While our core business remains TV rights we have launched channels and done a lot of other stuff successfully and we are always looking to develop business in other areas”, he said.
“I am so proud of what we have achieved and what we have built together.
For me the business is more important than just money and profit. It is about the excitement of knowing that at any time of day or night at least one of our offices is open and that business is being done. The whole business shares the passions for our daily work – for developing new projects and achieving new goals.
My ultimate goal is to continue building for as long as we can”.