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A family dynasty tried to break up European football and failed…don’t forget the importance of stakeholders

Andrea Agnelli, the breakaway European Super League founder and Juventus chairman, is probably not a happy man right now. His master plan with some prominent billionaires to shake up European football with a new elite league has fallen flat on its face. 

That failure is likely to have some ramifications for all those pushing the breakaway league. These include John Henry, the owner of Liverpool, Stan Kroenke, the owner of Arsenal, the Glazer family, the owners of Manchester United, and the other billionaires behind the teams in the now-defunct league.

But the bigger ramifications will likely be felt by one of Europe’s grandest family business dynasties Andrea Agnelli heralds from. Other family businesses should take note of those ramifications. 

What’s clear from the fiasco is that Andrea and the Agnelli family look to have taken their eye off the ball of one defining principle of the family business world – the importance of all stakeholders

Andrea is a member of one of Europe’s most famed family dynasties, the Agenllis. His cousin is John Elkann, the chairman and chief executive of Exor, which owns Juventus and Fiat Chrysler, and a host of other high-profile businesses, including a 40% stake in The Economist, the highly influential global political and business weekly. Family Capital ranks Exor, which today is based in the Netherlands, as the fourth biggest family business globally in terms of revenue. It made $155.9 billion in revenues in 2019. 

The Agnelli dynasty is held in an almost mythical standing in Italy where the family’s fortune stems from. Much of that reputation was built up over years of owning perhaps the country’s best-known business, Fiat, but also Juventus, one of the country’s most famous football sides. That reputation grew under the charismatic and glamorous business icon Ginnia Angelli, Elkann’s grandfather and Andrea’s uncle.  

Andrea sits on the board of Exor as a non-executive director, and Exor owns around 70% of Turin-based Juventus. That ownership goes back nearly 100 years. Indeed, few football teams are more associated with a family business dynasty than Juventus. 

Given this close association, it’s likely the idea of a European Super League had support from a close circle of Angelli family members and associates. Perhaps even Elkann himself, who is the heir to the Agnelli family’s reputation more than any member of the close-knit dynasty. 

For now, Andrea can carry the can for the failure of the super league idea. He can be the fall guy if necessary. Exor and the other Angellis can probably distance themselves from the worst ramifications. 

But their involvement, even if tangentially through their name association, isn’t going to go completely unnoticed by the wider world. 

What’s clear from the fiasco is that Andrea and the Agnelli family look to have taken their eye off the ball of one defining principle of the family business world – the importance of all stakeholders. When it comes to football, one of the most important stakeholders are the fans. And the fans rebelled against the super league idea and won. The score: Fans:10, the Agnellis: 0. 

Of course, there are other forces at play as well. Andrea felt he could bring some much-needed entrepreneurship to the beautiful game in Europe – and help struggling Italian sides that have been hit hard by the pandemic and bigger forces at play in European football. 

The business pedigree Andrea comes from would have given him that confidence. Those are legitimate aims and intentions. And should be admired. But he didn’t look at the bigger picture. And forget about all the stakeholders involved in football. Given the family dynasty he comes from has excelled at this in the past, his mistake is even more galling. 

For the wider family business community, the stakeholder mistake in the super league fiasco shouldn’t go unnoticed. In the post-pandemic world, sentiment towards the wealthy looks to be souring. The Biden administration won’t be as accommodating towards vast fortunes as his predecessor was. 

Also, the public will be looking for some post-pandemic dividend and won’t tolerate excessiveness from the rich. And for the most part, the public will be backed in this respect by their governments. 

That’s why stakeholders for family businesses need consideration more than ever. Because if they’re not, fiascos like the European Super League episode might not just fail but have ongoing reputational problems for families and their businesses for years.

 

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