Softspoken and stylishly dressed in a dark tailored business suit, Riccardo Silva is every inch the quietly prosperous businessman. He may be understated, but his offices are not. And they offer the first clue that you are talking to a man whose influence spans the globe. His headquarters, where we meet, is a suite of beautiful offices overlooking some of London’s most expensive real estate. There are floor-to-ceiling windows aplenty, plus designer Italian furniture in muted greys and silvers, and interesting sculptures and pieces of art placed carefully around the corridors. There’s also more space per room than in many Londoners’ entire apartments.
Though Silva had a secret desire to be a soccer player when he was a boy, he was born into a highly entrepreneurial family, and his sporting prowess has played out in business rather than on a field.
His grandfather founded Gruppo Desa, one of Italy’s largest chemical conglomerates, which manufactures laundry detergent, soap, and other products. His mother’s family is known in that country for its publishing group, Fabbri Editori.
While his relatives made big marks in Italy, Silva took on the world. At age 34, he founded MP & Silva, which is now one of the largest sports media agencies anywhere. The company manages TV rights for international sporting events and, according to its website, distributes around 10,000 hours of programming annually to about 500 broadcasters in 215 countries. Its portfolio includes the FIFA World Cup, senior European football leagues, Grand Slam tennis, motor racing, handball, baseball, volleyball, boxing, and the Asian Games.
Besides running his sports media agency, Silva heads Silva International Investments, whose portfolio includes Miami FC, an American soccer team; and the Riccardo Silva Art Collection. He also owns MP Management, which represents fashion models, and Mast Capital, a real estate investment company. Last year, MP & Silva announced a strategic partnership with China’s Everbright Securities and Internet entertainment company Beijing Baofeng Technology, a key player in the emerging virtual-reality sector in China.
Besides pursuing his diverse business interests, Silva is a philanthropist whose favorite charities include several with a sporting bent. Play for Change, for example, uses sport to improve impoverished children’s emotional and physical well being; and YKPA helps street kids in Bali, and teaches them dance, swimming, and surfing.
An avid sports fan, Silva combined his passion with his business sense to launch an empire. To build and maintain it, he has been chartering airplanes since 2004, and we began our talk by asking him about his experiences with private aviation.
Why do you fly privately?
To do more in a better way and shorter time. When I founded my company, we were only a small bunch of people. Now there are 20 offices worldwide. There is an office in Vietnam and one in Kenya. It is a great feeling to build this kind of organization, and flying privately is one of the ways that I’ve been able to achieve this.
I still remember the first time I chartered a plane. It was fantastic. I had four meetings, starting in Milan. The next one was in Prague with all the local broadcasters, then in Stockholm at lunchtime, then in the evening a working dinner in London. So in the same day, I could meet so many clients. This is a small example of where I could do in a day what I would normally do in three days, because I did not have to wait half a day for the next flight.
Planes are working tools, and I value them for their agility and comfort. With this tool, I can improve my performance and my results. I live in London, but I have to travel to Miami fairly regularly, and if you do it on a commercial plane you lose one day. You go to the airport in the morning, spend the day on the plane, and arrive in the afternoon. With your own charter, you work all day in Europe, go to dinner, take it easy, and go for a drink. Then you go to the airport at midnight and depart and you sleep for a couple hours and land at 5 a.m. in Miami, having slept during the night in a bed. It is essentially a way to save one day.
You work in so many cultures and countries. How do you navigate all the differences?
I try to be global and local at the same time. Every market and situation is different, so you must have local understanding. This is very important. Every person you deal with is different.
What led you to diversify beyond sports media and into the other fields you’ve chosen?
YouTube has just announced that it is going to start having these paid channels. There are many channels already online, competing with original broadcasters. There is a massive change in the media industry and how sports in distributed. So it is important to diversify a little bit, but not too much because you can’t do everything well. So what I did is to diversify with a common line from television rights or something else in the media sector. So it is sport, technology, education, and also fashion in a way [with his modeling agency]. There is also real estate, which is always important to a portfolio of investments. We can’t invest in everything but we can do well in these, since there is a strong commonality between them and synergies with the entertainment business.
What changes have you seen over the years in your original business, the distribution of sports programming?
The change has been in effect from the ’90s. We have seen a change in Europe from free to paid TV, and 60 percent of the spending for paid TV is sports rights, so it is really the driver for any television or media service. There is a change in the new forms of media, and more people are following sports on the Internet. For companies that sell rights to broadcasters, it just widens the options. Before we had televisions, now we have Netflix. I must say that sports will always be one of the drivers.
The concept of TV rights started in the ’80s. Distributing these rights is a big job because you have to distribute them in 200 countries. The rights can be segmented by countries, by live or delayed broadcast, by full match or highlights, by language. You can segment them in so many ways, especially if you have clients in many countries. One of the latest developments is inflight rights. I think it will become more important.
What drives you?
The biggest motivation is to build something valuable and that I am proud of. It wasn’t the money, because I came from a family that was already wealthy. I did it for passion. I didn’t ask for any money when I started my company, but my father guaranteed a bank loan. Nothing went wrong, thankfully, so he never had to pay anything. MP & Silva has been a fantastic journey, and now we have almost $1 billion in annual revenues. It is a very big company.
Did you buy the Miami soccer team because you were a fan?
I grew up in Italy. In Milan football [soccer] is huge. Everyone plays football and has their own team. So football has always been a passion. When I had the chance, I bought the first professional soccer team in Miami.
In the U.S., soccer is still small. I wouldn’t buy a team in the U.K., because it is already big. The challenge is to grow something, to start something small like soccer in the U.S. but with a vision and belief that in 20 years it will become a really big sport. The American kids who are 8, 10, and 12 now all follow and play soccer. They know all the players of the European teams like Manchester United or Madrid.
Three times last year we have had more than 10,000 people in the stadium, which for soccer in the U.S. is a big achievement. I think in 20 years or so, we will be compared to the other American sports, and we will have 60,000 people [at a game]. We are patient. It is a long-term view but I think in one generation we will get there.
NAME: Riccardo Silva
BORN: June 4, 1970, in Milan, Italy
EDUCATION: Studied at Universita Luigi Bocconi in Milan and Tulane University in New Orleans
TRANSPORTATION: Charters jets, typically Bombardier Global Expresses, via various brokers in the U.S. and Europe, and flies about 300 hours per year
BUSINESSES: Owns several companies, including MP & Silva, which manages sports rights and content for mobile and Internet platforms; and Silva International Investments, which manages and invests in assets in such sectors as sports, media, fashion, the arts, and real estate. Founded Miami’s first professional soccer team.
PHILANTHROPY: Play for Change; amfAR; Mount Sinai Medical Center; New World Symphony in Miami Beach, Florida; and other charities in the U.S., Europe, and Africa.
PERSONAL: Lives in London with wife Tatyana. Two sons, ages 8 and 12. Art collector.