Ownership issues at Leeds United are nothing new. While Andrea Radrizzani isn’t perfect, he’s been a relatively decent owner given the previous stewardships of Ken Bates, Massimmo Cellino, Peter Ridsdale, and GFH.
However, it could have been worse because of course it could have. It was revealed that American baseball star Mike Piazza had once considered buying Leeds United before turning his eye to Italy and Reggiana, a Serie C team that he would walk away from after two years, plunging the team into bankruptcy and liquidation.
The article about Mike Piazza’s ill-fated time at the helm of Reggiana is behind a paywall (although you can sign up for a free trial and cancel the same day as I did) so I’ll break down some of the highlights and the general theme.
Basically, Piazza got bored with being a retired athlete with time and money to burn. For those unfamiliar with American baseball, Mike Piazza was a famous, and very good, baseball player. He played in the major leagues for 16 years for a few different clubs, starting out with the LA Dodgers, going to the Florida (now Miami) Marlins for about a week, then on to the New York Mets where he played in a World Series against the New York Yankees. After a few years in New York, he signed with the San Diego Padres, and finally played for the Oakland Athletics. He was a 12 time All-Star, and received one of the greatest honours a baseball player can get: He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2016.
However, like many athletes, he has very little experience running a business, much less owning a sports franchise. The highest profile ex-athlete owner in American sports is Mario Lemieux of the Pittsburgh Penguins, and he was smart enough to get additional investors and hire dedicated people to run the parts of the business that he was not familiar with, including a general manager to acquire players and a CEO to run the business side of the club. Lemieux even came back and played with the team as an owner, but he’s never pretended to be anything other than an ex-hockey player.
Piazza, who is of Italian heritage, thought that going to Italy and buying a struggling team with a lot of potential would easily result in success for him and his investment would, obviously, be returned once the team shot up the standings and get back into Serie A. He would make money and the city would have a Serie A team again. Simple, right?
Of course, anyone who pays attention to sports knows that this fairy tale never, ever, works out that way. The costs ballooned the first year as Piazza, and his wife Alicia, failed to understand how employment laws differed in Italy from America and also how different doing business in Italy was to the United States and how different it was owning a team than just cheering them on or playing for a team.
After Piazza lost lots of money his first year, as he tells it, he put his wife in charge of the team. Unfortunately for everyone involved, she had never wanted her husband to purchase the team in the first place. She ran roughshod over the team, looking to cut costs everywhere. She forced the players to clean their own kits, in a league where most of the players do not live in places that have their own laundry facilities. The team tried to renege on a promised salary for a new manager, only for him to walk away on principle.
Despite all of the off the pitch turmoil, the club somehow was in the promotion play-offs to get the team to Serie B, when a series of dodgy decisions saw Siena win the two-legged round over Reggiana. Afterwards, convinced that he had been cheated, Piazza simply walked away, leaving the team bankrupt and ultimately forcing the team to be liquidated. Instead of celebrating their centenary season, a phoenix club has replaced them.
It is, of course, impossible to say that Piazza buying Leeds would have resulted in the same fate. However, given the way it all went down in Italy, there is little doubt that once the going got tough, Piazza would have simply walked away from the club. And of course the going would have gotten tough: The Championship is a graveyard of broken dreams, with teams and fanbases that have tried and failed to live the dream, or have tasted success and are furiously spending money to taste it once again.
Football team owners are a strange lot, and perhaps Radrizzani will be the one to see Leeds get back into the Premier League. However, no matter how bad it gets, at least Leeds dodged one potential nightmare.