The past week saw an eighth Serie A club fall under American control, with Boston Celtics co-owner Stephen Pagliuca leading a US-based group to acquire a majority stake in Atalanta Bergamo.
Atalanta announced the deal and gave details of the partnership agreement in a press release on Saturday. In the announcement, they affirmed their intent to expand the team’s global reach and keep them entrenched amongst the league’s elite, where they have been positioned for the last few seasons.
The team now joins the likes of AC Milan, AS Roma, Venezia and several other clubs in Italy, who have been brought under the control of American-based investors or investment groups.
An attractive target for investors
The team referred to as “la Dea” (the Goddess) has been a rising power in Europe, and one of the more successful teams in Serie A over the last few years, with three straight third-place finishes, and five consecutive European appearances.
More importantly for their new investors, they have been lauded as one of the most adeptly-run clubs in the game, who have managed to remain both profitable and successful despite playing on a small budget compared to their domestic and European competitors.
The American consortium is led by Brooklyn-born investor Stephen Pagliuca, co-chairman of Boston-based private investment firm Bain Capital, a company which is currently responsible for more than €155 billion in investments. Most notably in the sporting arena, Pagliuca is co-owner and managing partner of legendary NBA team Boston Celtics, whom he acquired in 2003.
In the partnership deal with Atalanta, the Pagliuca-led group of investors have acquired 55% of the shares in La Dea Srl, the Bergamo-based sub-holding company that owns approximately 86% of the shares of the club.
The other 45% of the shares in La Dea Srl remain with the Percassi family, in particular local businessman Antonio Percassi, who has deep roots with the team and the region. The Percassi family will remain in the roles of Chairman and CEO, with Pagliuca taking on the new role of Co-Chairman.
Percassi, who briefly played with Atalanta in the 1960s and early-1970s and has had two stints as the club’s chairman (1990-1994, 2010-present), initially acquired the club for €14 million in 2010 when they were playing in Serie B. This represents a pittance compared to the reported sum of more than €400 million paid by Pagliuca and co. for their controlling stake in the club.
Atalanta’s recent profile and historical curiosities
Beyond their recent financial and on-field success, Atalanta’s rise has been one of the more unexpected and entertaining developments in the European game, with certain aspects – not all necessarily positive – having gained considerable attention.
Notably, Percassi has become renowned for building the fan-base from, quite literally, the moment of birth, as every newborn to be born within the city is given a jersey while they are still in the hospital.
Traditionally a yo-yo club for much of their history, bouncing between Italy’s top two levels, Atalanta’s current sustained success can be directly tied to the arrival of highly animated and often caustic head coach Gian Piero Gasperini prior to the 2016-2017 season.
Despite reportedly coming close to losing his job after a rough first few games at the helm, Gasperini turned it around with a strong run beginning in the fall of 2016(*) and led la Dea to a club-record fourth place finish in that season, thereby giving them their first-ever entry into European competition.
The team’s sustained success has turned the animated coach, who collects red cards with a similar fervor as Donald Trump collects ex-wives, into a god-like figure amongst fans, and a key part of the club’s image.
Gasperini has brought an attacking, free-scoring style of play to the team, which occasionally leads to scorelines which would be fitting for an NFL game. They have led Serie A in scoring in each of the past three seasons. Remarkably, their 189 total league goals through the 2019/20 and 2020/21 domestic seasons were only bested by FC Bayern amongst the top-five leagues in Europe.
The fans themselves, the most devout of whom occupy the “Curva Nord” in the Stadio Atleti Azzurri d’Italia, have a colorful history, in particular with regards to their historical rivalry against regional neighbors Brescia.
Most memorably, in an age of less stringent security standards in Italian stadiums (where alcoholic drinks are now forbidden from being served), Atalanta fans snuck a piglet into their fan section in a late-March derby against Bresica during the 1998-99 Serie B season, which was released onto the field during the game wearing a Brescia scarf.
More recently, and more tragically, the Bergamo region became the first European hotspot for the spread of Coronavirus in early-2020. As infections were initially spreading unbeknownst to local health officials, Atalanta was competing in the Champions League Round of 16 against Spaniards Valencia, who they soundly beat 8-3 on aggregate.
Subsequently, the first leg of this two-game series, which took place on February 19 in San Siro due to UEFA stadium regulations, was identified by local health experts as a key factor in the sudden explosion of cases in the region.
In the current season, Atalanta are just below the Champions League places in Serie A, with 13 games left to play in the season. They just flew past Olympiacos in the Europa League knockout round play-off, and will be vying for a deep run in their quest for a first-ever European trophy.
A destination for American players?
Does the new partnership arrangement portend the arrival of American players in Bergamo? Inevitable rumors aside, the recent glut of new US-based owners in Serie A has had little impact on an influx of American players into Italy.
Apart from Venezia, who have imported Gianluca Busio and Tanner Tessmann to their first team along with an additional two youth players (Jack de Vries and Patrick Leal), no other Yanks are on the books at any of the other seven teams with American owners.
In Serie B, Ascoli Calcio, who had a 31% share acquired by a New York-based investment group in 2021, did sign Americans Giuseppe Barone (who has since been released) and Anthony Fontana (who has yet to suit up due to injury) on free transfers. However, these moves are a world away from those that would be targeted by a team that is attempting to maintain an already established run of success at the highest levels.
Atalanta’s common player acquisition strategy of buying low (relatively speaking), developing, then selling high has been one of the keys to their financial success in recent years, as typified by their recent dealing surrounding German international Robin Gosens, and is one which is likely to remain in some form under the new owners.
This would loosely set a relatively narrow potential profile of player acquisitions by the club in summer 2022 and beyond, although they have occasionally paid fees in excess of €12 million in recent years for established, veteran attackers such as the 30 year-old Colombian duo of Duvan Zapata and Luis Muriel.
In short the presence of a new US-based ownership group likely won’t turn Bergamo into a sudden haven for American players. That said, the successes of Busio and Juventus star Weston McKennie, particularly the latter in terms of marketability stateside, will not go unnoticed when Pagliuca and co. navigate their first transfer window in the upcoming summer.
(*) As somebody who wakes up every morning next to a Bergamo-born, lifelong, militant Atalantina, the author admits some survival-driven bias when writing about Atalanta’s performance, and also probably knows a few more useless facts about the team than are necessary. The author is also proud to have been in the Curva Nord in the Stadio Atleti Azzurri d’Italia on October 2, 2016 when Atalanta beat then-second-place Napoli 1-0 at the very beginning of their still-ongoing run of success…even it would have been nicer to watch with a beer in hand.