Football: The man behind the plan to change football forever

Rodolfo Hecht, European super league's front man, says he has the game's interests at heart. Interview by Nick Harris
Click to follow
The Independent Online
RODOLFO HECHT does not give the impression he is a trouble-maker. An athletically built man in a casual, open-necked shirt, he could have been mistaken yesterday for a tourist on a day trip to London.

Appearances, as they say, can be deceptive. Not only is Hecht the president of Media Partners, the company behind a European super league, ESL, he is also the man who may lead a football revolution. And after the European Professional Leagues' Committee announced yesterday that they had "no time" for his plans, the revolution may turn bloody.

Not that it seemed to concern him unduly. "Until we had the final shape of the concept, we didn't want to go public with it," he said yesterday in the central London offices of Brunswick, the public relations company which represents his Milan-based marketing and sports rights company. "Now I definitely have that confidence [that the league will go ahead] and the mandate [to make it happen] from the clubs [we have approached to join]," he said.

A meeting in London on Monday with Europe's leading clubs, including Manchester United and Arsenal, has only made him more confident.

The man who hopes to change the face of European football was born in Rome in 1954, the son of Gianni, a film producer who won a Oscar in the 1970s for The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. When his father went bankrupt, Hecht took "menial" jobs to help the family for several years. In 1981, he joined Fiat and later a merchant bank. He went on to work as a sports marketing strategy manager for Fininvest, the holding company of the media empire of the Italian mogul Silvio Berlusconi.

Berlusconi, a former Italian Prime Minister who also happens to own Milan of Serie A, is not directly involved in Media Partners, according to Hecht, although he is one of a number of businessmen who would be likely to exploit the possibilities a super league would offer to television companies.

"I feel grateful to Berlusconi - many of my team learned a lot of the value of business from him, but that's as far as it goes," he said.

Hecht formed Media Partners in 1992, and the years of planning a super league have reached a climax. The league, Hecht said, would consist of 32 teams in two divisions, and that there would also be a knock-out competition, the Pro Cup.

At least 10 English sides would play in the two tournaments, four in the league and more than six in the cup. ESL games, Hecht said, would be played on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays - and so not unduly interfere with domestic programmes.

Each club would play a minimum of 15 games per season (playing each of the others once, home or away but not both, to be decided by a ballot) and a maximum of 22 games (the top eight sides in each division would play round-robin or knock-out stages - seven extra games at most).

In financial terms, Hecht predicted that each of the 32 ESL clubs would be guaranteed an average of pounds 16.8m per year. Teams in the latter stages, and those who attracted bigger audiences, would receive more.

Compared with the pounds 6.5m Manchester United earned from Europe last season, the figures are enticing. The Pro Cup will feature at least another 56 teams in a knock-out tournament broadly similar to the Uefa Cup. Again, Hecht said, entry will be based on domestic performances.

In response to criticisms that certain countries - the former Soviet republics and Europe's smaller nations in particular - may miss out, Hecht said: "We have no desire to exclude anyone. It is the clubs that are leading this." All plans were flexible and negotiable within the current framework, he stressed.

In response to suggestions that the Continent's haves will only become richer still and that fans will ultimately be the losers, he said: "The fans have been fuelled by a caricature of this project." Media Partners' proposals were completely transparent, he added, and that after meetings with individual leagues - he will address a gathering of all Premier League clubs on 3 September - he was confident they would see his company is offering something that Uefa, the European governing body, currently is not.

The main source of Media Partners' revenue will be from television, and Hecht confirmed he had already made contact with the leading broadcasters - including Robert Murdoch's BSkyB - although no contracts have yet been signed.

"I can assure you that not one penny of this competition has been promised to anyone," he said. "All the [television] rights of this competition will be open to bids."

However, he is confident deals can be done. "There have been contacts [with Sky and others]. More in terms of brainstorming to see if we were configuring the competition in the right way. Saying, 'Would you be ready to do this and when?' We are in touch with the world's largest broadcasters, but we want the product to reach the market untouched."

Many games will still be available on (free) terrestrial television, but his plans also involve access to football in other, different ways than current Uefa tournaments provide.

"The Champions' League is using only the free TV piece of the media spectrum," he said, adding that pay-per-view, digital television, and multi-media projects involving the Internet are all possible means of access.

So what do Media Partners get from the deal? "We are the marketing agents," said Hecht, adding his company would take five per cent (or pounds 40m) of the projected pounds 820m revenues each year. It would also give five per cent each year to youth football in Europe.

Hecht's love of the game, he said, stemmed from his university days, spent watching Milan. "I am a guy in love with football and have a bunch of partners who are in love with football," he said. "The ESL started as a hobby to see if we could develop something better for the clubs and the fans."

What he has developed is potentially the most radical change European football has seen, and whether or not it will work depends on several factors. Even as Hecht was outlining his proposals yesterday, a meeting was taking place in Geneva of the Professional Leagues' Committee - the heads of the larger European leagues, including Peter Leaver, chief executive of the Premier League - to discuss the future of European competitions. The Committee announced afterwards they had "no time" for Hecht's proposals, but may still use the threat of a non-Uefa league as a stick with which to beat Uefa into submission.

It may also be the case that some at the meeting see merit in Media Partners' plans - and that they were described as having "antagonistic" opinions lends credence to that view. The possibility also remains that should Uefa not implement broad changes, the clubs approached by Media Partners will be attracted to its venture anyway, and a four-way conflict between Uefa, Media Partners and individual leagues and clubs could erupt.

The issue may ultimately come down to money. The clubs - assuming they are confident Media Partners can deliver - may be tempted by significant leaps in income. They will also want to know why, if Media Partners can deliver, Uefa cannot?

"We are trying to deliver a league 100 per cent owned by the clubs," Hecht said. "We have worked for years developing a project based on our perceptions of the fans, the clubs and the leagues. Let us try and come up with the dream."

Whether Hecht succeeds in being a pioneer or merely a nearly man remains to be seen. The week in Europe will not be uneventful.

THE HECHT PROPOSALS

Super League: Consisting of two divisions. Each division has 16 teams and will consist of a mix of 16 "founder members" and 16 others.

The "founder members": Invited to join for their "performance merit" on the pitch in the past 10 years. The precise criteria are still being finalised, but the 16 first-choice candidates so far are:

Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool, Juventus, Internazionale, Milan, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, Ajax, Marseille, Paris St Germain, Benfica, Panathanaikos and Galatasaray. These clubs have been guaranteed at least a three-year tenure in the league. They may be replaced by other clubs if their long-tern performance on a Media Partners scale is overtaken by other clubs.

The "other 16": One club from each of 16 counties. These will be domestic league winners or next best placed clubs if the winners are already among the "founder members". One place at least for an English club in addition to the three places in the "founder members". The "other 16" will change from year to year.

Format: The 32 clubs will be split between two divisions, some "founder members" and "others" in each division. They will play 15 games per season on either Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. They will play either home and away against each club in their division, but not both.

End game: The top eight clubs in each league will play a knock-out or round-robin stage (a total of seven extra games) to find an eventual winner.

Money: Each super league club will get an average of pounds 16.8m from taking part. Success will bring more money.

Pro cup: A straightforward knock-out competition. Number of clubs to be decided, but at least 56 from as broad a range of all European countries. Much like the current Uefa cup. All clubs will qualify on performance in the national leagues.

At least pounds 300m to be divided between the participants, more if successful.

Comments