Silence of the Lambs
We are told that sport is a business of intangibles. Well, when you insist on calling sports clubs and teams as brands, be careful what you wish for!
Brands are fragile.
I once saw a shop in London called Johnny Lambs. I laughed. Only people knowing the history of Italy would! Johnny Lambs translates as Gianni Agnelli, the patriarchal emblem, and indeed brand, of 20th century Italy. An uncrowned king, owner of the FIAT dynasty, who also possesses (possession is exactly the right word) Juventus and Ferrari.
Isn’t it funny that in these days of frenzied football M&A, where all clubs seem up for sale, that Juventus is never ever mentioned as on the block? Well, if you know Italy, and the Agnelli family, it isn’t strange at all.
La Juventus…we’ve always had it; it isn’t an asset though, it’s a passion.
– Gianni Agnelli
Everything you need to understand about the history of the country, its virtues, and vices, its sports industry, sooner or later, has a touch point with Johnny Lambs.
And that includes “never-to-be-sold” sports assets. And what they mean.
But maybe, like so many things in this gear-crunching generational change, all things must pass? Perhaps so.
The mass resignation of Juventus’s Board…
Earlier this week, the entire Board of the Juventus football club, a listed company, had to resign. This has taken down the infamous President Andrea Agnelli, in a scandal around false financial reporting (a very serious crime in Italy).
Amusingly also gone is that delightful character and Golden ball winner Pavel Nedved. Forever burned in my own memory for having totally wiped out a rapper in a charity football match who had dared to nutmeg him.
It’s ironic that in recent years, the Board of Juventus has tried so hard to turn the football club into what they call a “lifestyle brand”. With this latest scandal, one wonders what brand values they think they are communicating? And why they have forgotten the brand of Johnny?
…and Binotto’s resignation in Ferrari F1 Scuderia
In other related news this week, we also lost the chief of the Ferrari F1 Scuderia, Binotto, at the end of a season when, in brand word association, the most famous race team in the world was known more for strategic incompetence and cock-ups, rather than the glory of their traditional reputation. Binotto, the meme clown of TikTok, is gone. It is difficult for non-Italians to get how dramatic all this is. Binotto doesn’t count, Ferrari kind of does.
Not all Italians love the national team. But rest assured that all Italians, and half of the rest of the world, love Ferrari.
– Gianni Agnelli
Give a child some paper and crayons, ask him/her to draw a car…and it’s going to be red.
– Enzo Ferrari
Is there a trend here? Same week?
Is this a story of:
a football club and super leagues?
an F1 racing team?
a changing sports industry?
the business of sport messing up the fabric of society?
Exor, a major financial conglomerate controlled by the Agnellis?
a family fighting over inherited big money?
It is all of these….but, mainly, it is a story of brand! The (Gianni) Agnelli brand is the story. Think Logan Roy, mixed with Cary Grant.
And what happens when “lifestyle” goes from cool, to corrupt and chaotic? Not sure fan ARPU goes up in those circumstances! Johnny Lambs was cool. His nephew Andrea, Nedved, Binotto and Arrivabene aren’t.
This is the country of Cicero and Michelangelo
In Italy, image really counts. This isn’t Germany. This is the country of Cicero and Michelangelo.
So, I’m not going to get into the numbers of Juventus. The numbers aren’t the story. And many many articles and tweet threads, in recent days, have done a wonderful job on that. Suffice to say it is around window dressing the operating performance of the club, with creative accounting around salary costs, and player trading gains.
I am a great believer in moments in time. Coincidences have never convinced me. I believe in directions of travel. Where are Italy, Juventus and Ferrari going?
Here’s the recap…., Italy is a country massively in debt, with interest rates now rising to unsustainable levels. A country screaming in pain as cheap Russian energy must be replaced. Money is gonna be very tight, and it will be tough to avoid Troikas and austerity.
Its football industry far fallen from its past dominance, sustained by TV rights (over)paid by a shaky broadcaster, called DAZN. Italy hasn’t qualified for the last two World Cups, and not been competitive in one since 2006. Ferrari, has still a hugely successful sports car business, but it risks losing its brand values of engineering excellence and uncompromising quality in everything. Ferrari can’t be seen as the dullards of the class, playing catchup!
This week will inform so so many things in Italy, in Europe, and in sport. Some obvious, others less so.
Let’s paint some colour… in Italy, colour is all.
In previous episodes of Succession…
Fiat and the Agnellis are based in Turin, that less well known of the Italian cities (compared to Rome, Milan, Florence, Naples, Venice…). Yet, it would be an error to underestimate what was once the capital of Italy, and certainly the cradle of the Risorgimento, which unified Italy. It has history, class and gravitas, with a hand still reaching across the border into French noble culture. In my experience, it is the hardest Italian city to decipher.
Turin remains an ancient garrison city, where duties come before rights; where Catholicism preserves Jansenist blood; the air is cold; and people wake up and go to bed early; anti-fascism is a serious matter, as is work ethic and profit.
– Gianni Agnelli
Italian capitalism, and indeed, society are based around families, where stereotypically an inventor/entrepreneur will start an activity, and largely keep control of that company as a family dynasty asset, to be passed down.
Everything I have, I inherited from my grandfather. I have merely managed well the responsibility of that legacy.
All is fair game in life, but the family you must never leave.
– Gianni Agnelli
Family and your territory, your land. So so more important here than anywhere else.
This solidifies the almost feudal mindset, with which Italians have always seemed very comfortable. The padrone/boss, and the serfs. The powerful families, and those less so.
FIAT defined Italy in so many ways
FIAT was this: the car company founded at the turn of the century by Johnny’s grandfather. It got big and, as a consequence, FIAT and the Agnellis have defined Italy in so many fundamental ways:
- They put mobility in the hands of working class with the legendary 500 utility car. A peninsular to be unlocked. Culturally a huge change.
- FIAT became the lighthouse for the Italian economic miracle of the 50s and 60s. The golden family giving work to so many, who at that time were unendingly grateful.
- Their factories attracted the poor workers from the South in search of a life. For a country still very new to being unified, this should not be understated. It is also why Juventus has such a wide diaspora of fans from Southern Italy heritage. It was “the team of the man putting bread on our table.”
- They became de facto the aristocracy, nae post Savoia royalty, of a post-war Italy, recovering on its feet after the physical and mental drama of Nazi occupation (having started the war as their allies). You always need a symbol of success around which to rebuild your pride. In a country with new governments seemingly every new fashion collection, the Agnellis became a sort of Monarch stability institute. And/or, conversely, a sinister Don Rodrigo figure.
- They own two of the most fundamental assets in the life of Italians, elite football, and racing cars. Johnny, the world class playboy, allowed us to vicariously tick the box of the other one: beautiful women. Power, success, charm, football, elite cars, and feminine charm. Brand to die for.
Gianni Agnelli and the great and good, the beautiful and powerful
Johnny was educated in the finest European way, with immense culture and class, and became the archetypal founding member of the 1960s jet set, friend of the great and good, the beautiful and powerful, from the Kennedys to Anita Ekberg. He played the field in every way, until the age of 45.
I like beauty and excellence, and I even believe that they are the same thing. Beautiful things are excellent, while mediocrity is not beautiful.
Everyman is an aspiring playboy. It’s just that some can pull it off, others less so.
I’m asked if I’ve ever fallen in love. You fall in love at 20. Later than that, it’s only for waitresses.
– Gianni Agnelli
His life story is an utterly magnificent saga we don’t have time for here. If of interest, start with Alan Friedman’s Agnelli and the Network of Italian Power, a book described as such:
Friedman makes a series of startling allegations about Europe’s most glamorous businessman and uncrowned king of Italy. It is the story of a remarkable Italian dynasty, of intrigue and alleged improprieties at the pinnacles of international finance and politics; of dealings with prime ministers, with the White House, and the Pentagon and Moscow; and of the unholy alliances Agnelli has made with dictators such as Colonel Gadaffi of Libya. Above all, it is the story of a relentless drive to expand and crush the opposition.
This ISN’T a complimentary book. Indeed, there is a well-established narrative that FIAT and Agnelli have been bon-viveur capitalists in good times, and hand-out socialists, looking for state bailouts, in bad times. Let’s simply say that, as always, the family came before all in their thinking and actions. (In their defence, I think that is true of every single family in Italy. How many sins committed here, in the name of protecting the family?)
Gianni Agnelli, our Johnny, with his brand, covered, and deflected all this very nuanced and dubious reality. He was immensely popular, and admired, where each of his interviews were considered inspirational, in a very loveable rogue kind of way.
As a sailor, I love the wind, because it can never be purchased.
– Gianni Agnelli
The Agnelli brand decay
Johnny died 20 years ago, and I personally believe that his passing started a slow process of weakening of the family brand and control, to what today may be existential risk.
As always in everything that counts, it was the personal charisma of an individual that held together the positive image of the family. Without him, in the last 2 decades, let’s say the dynasty has been judged much less favourably. That may now accelerate.
The chosen heir of Johnny, his nephew Giovanni Agnelli, died of cancer at 33. All rather reminiscent of another Camelot dynasty, in the death of JFK Jr at 39. The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away!
The family skipped a generation, to grandson John (Yaki) Elkann, his brother Lapo, and their cousin Andrea Agnelli. Again, think Succession. Roman is Lapo Elkann, Kendall is Andrea. Getting the picture?
Those who enjoy these similes and soap opera intrigue can go down as many rabbit holes as they wish at this point. The Agnelli family has never been short of that kind of beef. I prefer to not mention some of my favourites… but the Ceferin godfather thing is quite something.
They however still own all the assets that count.
The Agnellis will celebrate owning Juventus for 100 years next year. They have had Ferrari for 50. To do that, you need many things, but especially vision.
Hollywood and arthouse, years ago!
Mediocre footballers earn too much, the good ones earn too little.
– Gianni Agnelli
Whilst Ferrari has been universally admired and liked by all Italians, as a symbol of their undoubted mechanical and design excellence, Juventus has not. Indeed, for a great many, it is as hated as Franco’s Real Madrid. (For balance, many will say that this is always the fate of winners… to be envied by the losers in life.)
The first sin of the FIAT works team, called Juventus, was to dethrone il Grande Torino (that legendary side killed in its entirety in 1949 on a Superga hillside….in a Fiat G212 aircrash). Juventus dominated the city and Italian football from then on, boosted by the wealth of the empire, and Johhny.
Over the decades that followed, they have always been seen by other clubs as having had every single favour going, when needed. Roma and Fiorentina fans know what I mean. Our own artist, Jacopo Ziliotto, a storied Verona Ultra, remembers all too well the famous penalty incident in the European Cup quarter final. Fans never forgive or forget.
Huge success until Calciopoli
To be fair, again, in the early 80s, the Juve 11 was objectively truly magnificent, and deservedly won admiration (“the Italian world cup winning team plus Platini and Boniek”).
To have Platini in your team is like having a platinum credit card always at your disposal.
Platini we bought for the price of a loaf; he added the fois gras.
– Gianni Agnelli
After the eras of Maradona and Berlusconi’s Milan, they returned to the top under Lippi in the mid 90s. And, yet again, plagued by very debated circumstances, specifically the accusations of doping and EPO. Unsightly discussions totally defected away with the brand charm of Johnny…
If Baggio is Raffaello, Del Piero is Pinturicchio.
– Gianni Agnelli
In 2006, the sceptics and haters had all the confirmation they needed, in their belief that Juventus controlled referees and sporting media. Calciopoli sent them down (a division) and robbed them of 2 league titles. Many would say, they should have been robbed of them all. The era of Moggi, Giraudo and Bettega was undeniably rancid and full of arrogance. Johnny was long dead. And it showed.
Andrea Agnelli rebuilt the club with Conte/Allegri and Marotta. A new decade of dominance, which then started to unravel in dramatic fashion since the signing of Cristiano Ronaldo.
Under Johnny, Juve have always had great champions. But never ever did you get the impression that anyone had a surname and importance bigger than Agnelli. The club was sovereign. With CR7, and without Johnny, that wasn’t the case. The root cause of today’s eye-watering losses and subsequent cover-ups.
So what now for Juventus (and Ferrari)?
So what now happens to Juventus (and Ferrari) when the macro brand of Johnny has long gone, no longer able to deflect? And money is tighter.
Juventus will need to downsize its ambitions and bravado overnight. Financial fair play will return front and centre for them, as UEFA finds a cause celebre, onto which they build back their FFP. It is likely that Andrea Agnelli’s super league will be forgotten. This won’t be good news for Serie A and their ambitions. DAZN will see even less reason to hang around down here. And yet, maybe this is the reset needed, bringing back the traditional focus of the Italian football school, around local kids and home mentality.
Similarly, for me at least, is how this “fall” of Juventus parlays into the overall theme of “authentic” fandom. Especially in a time of downsizing and recession. Juventus has always been a “corporate” team, aligned to a business empire, more than of its city Turin. And whose fans’ loyalty was attached to the brand of winning, in primis, and to Johnny. Both have dissipated. Let’s remember in this theme the awful problems Jim Pallotta had in Rome, and Roma, when he actively removed the romanità of Totti, De Rossi et al.
Football is territorial
Italian football has always been territorial and loyal to its city/region (campanilismo), with Juventus perhaps the only exception, for reasons stated above. None of the foreign owners of Italian clubs have ever done well. There is NO use case of success to date. I still think they don’t get Italy?
What is the future of the Juventus brand, post Johnny, with a changed logo, and dragged thru the mud, for the umpteenth time? Is this an existential risk? Your brand is winning and elitist… but then it’s neither. And the authentic team of the city is Torino!!!
Ferrari and its underperformance doesn’t help any of this at all. But it is an easier fix. It will need to rediscover the commitment to excellent of Johnny and Enzo. No more Binottos, no more Arrivabenes. Luckily their brand remains still tier1. It is, and always has been, unique and authentic. Often it hasn’t be winning, but nothing has changed. Ferrari is the stronger of the Agnelli sporting brands.
One of the greatest skills of Jonny was he knew he always needed great managers. CEOs. Valletta, Romiti, Enzo Ferrari, Boniperti, Todt, Montezemolo, Marchionne. I don’t see this quality today. Arrivabene is what I’ve seen. Mamma mia.
This is a general theme for sport and Italian sport. No more political appointments, no more friends, and friends of friends. The answer is in C-Suite quality that is Italian or really gets Italy. Whatever happens now, the Lambs have indeed been silenced. As they say here, shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations.
Thinking of Johnny, that’s tragic, as we won’t easily see his likes again.
So Juve and Ferrari are now on their own. No more golden image personality to cover them.
They are, now, on their own.
Listen to our “Are you not entertained?” sports management podcast here.
To find out what we do in change management, have a look here.
For our C-suite management services, read here.
Here you can know more about our content development work.
Discover our Corporate Learning service.
Get to know more our “Sport Summit Como” yearly sports management event here.
If you are interested in our own story, check us out here.