For nearly 50 years, Wharton’s MBA Program for Executives has been renowned for its ability to connect the world’s most talented professionals and propel their careers to the next level. Today, the program continues to serve as a catalyst for its students to forge new business partnerships, launch startup companies, and make life-changing investments. For proof, look no further than Cotogna Sports Group, an investment firm founded by 2023 classmates Prab Sekhon, Fitzann Reid, Richard Johnson, Richard de Meo, John Jefferies, and Connor Barwin. United by a passion for sports and business, the group closed its first deal this year with the acquisition of Pallacanestro Trieste, a top-tier Italian professional basketball team. As group members prepared to graduate, they reflected on how Wharton played a significant role in their ability to execute the deal.
How It Started
Cotogna Sports Group’s origin story began on the Wharton San Francisco campus, where former athletes Reid, Sekhon, Johnson, and de Meo bonded over a shared passion for sports during Wharton class weekends. “The common thread with our group is that sports are meaningful to us on a deeper level,” says Sekhon, who competed on Canada’s national karate team during his college years. Over time, casual sports chatter evolved into more serious discussions about acquisitions and team ownership. “I’ve always thought about sports ownership, but especially as a Black woman, I wasn’t sure when or if that opportunity would present itself,” says former soccer player and coach Reid. “When this idea started forming between us to explore sports acquisitions, I was all in.”
In year two of the Wharton EMBA program, students choose from more than 200 electives to tailor the curriculum to their interests. Sekhon, Reid, Johnson, and de Meo jumped at the chance to take Sports Management, an elective course that offers a comprehensive overview of the sports industry. “Sports Management with Rob DiGisi gave us a solid understanding of where the sports industry is headed on a global scale,” Reid says. “We learned about current trends not just in the United States, but all over the world.”
It wasn’t long before DiGisi, a Wharton lecturer and veteran sports sales and marketing executive, picked up on his students’ aspirations to own a professional sports team. “They were determined to pursue sports acquisitions,” explains DiGisi. “After the course ended, I happened to get a call from an industry connection who told me that the Italian basketball team Pallacanestro Trieste was looking to sell. I immediately thought of Prab, and once I looped him into the conversation, the ball started rolling.”
Hoops Halfway Around the World
The Wharton students went to work, conducting thorough research as part of their due-diligence process. What they discovered not only surprised them; it also bolstered their confidence in the decision to move forward with the team. “Italy is not an obvious choice,” admits de Meo, “but we analyzed the European sports market and found evidence that basketball viewership is going up fast. There’s been a massive increase in NBA Season Pass Europe over the past five years, we’re seeing major viewership increases within the LBA [the pro basketball league that includes Trieste], and EuroLeague is more popular than ever before.”
Known as “Italy’s Forgotten Gem,” Trieste is a quaint city in the northeastern region, nestled between basketball hotbeds Slovenia and Croatia. While the past decade has seen significant American investment pour into the Italian soccer market, basketball hasn’t attracted the same attention, and as a result, some teams are remarkably undervalued. The students were pleasantly surprised to discover that Pallacanestro Trieste, a Serie A2 league team with a 75-year history and a fiercely dedicated fan base, held tremendous potential.
The Dream Team
With a business plan taking shape, the group tapped into the Wharton network to enlist two more members for CSG’s “dream team.” Seeking expertise from sports industry professionals, Prab recruited two classmates: Memphis Grizzlies team cardiologist Jefferies and former NFL linebacker Barwin.
Like many students in the Wharton MBA Program for Executives, Jefferies took advantage of the opportunity to switch cohorts during the second year, shifting from Philadelphia to the West Coast. “There was a health-care management elective course offered on the San Francisco campus that I wanted to take,” he explains. “I essentially doubled my professional network during my time in San Francisco and made a great group of friends as well.”
Barwin, a Philadelphia EMBA student and director of player development for the Philadelphia Eagles, connected with Sekhon and de Meo during Global Business Week, an extended class session taken by second-year students from the Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Global cohorts. “I was hesitant because I know how complicated it can be to acquire a team,” he says. “Professor Zeke Hernandez’s course Doing Business in Times of Uncertainty reaffirmed to me how powerful sports are and gave me the confidence to move forward with Pallacanestro Trieste.”
The group entrusted de Meo, who has roots in the U.K. and speaks Italian fluently, with visiting Trieste and discussing the deal with the team. “Mario Ghiacci, the president of Pallacanestro Trieste, and his business partners were very welcoming and told a compelling story about the legacy and potential of the team,” de Meo recalls. “I was quite clear that we didn’t necessarily have deep industry knowledge, but we had a network of value and a lot of enthusiasm, which resonated with what they were looking for. Having Connor and John’s deep sports expertise on board bolstered our credibility as well.”
How It’s Going
After CSG successfully closed the $5 million deal in January, the focus turned to the day-to-day operations of owning a professional sports team. Members broke out roles and responsibilities by leveraging their strengths and diverse backgrounds; while Barwin and Jefferies focus on meeting the needs of players, coaches, and staff, de Meo works on high-level business strategy and vision. Sekhon manages operations and P&L, and Reid and Johnson tackle the legal logistics. “We are very active during this transition period,” says Barwin. “We want to engage with the fans, coaches, and players as we ride with them to the top of the LBA.” Long-term, the group will guide strategy, implement the core values of the club, and hire leadership within the club to achieve their goal of entering the EuroLeague, the most prestigious competition in European basketball.
As for what’s next, CSG is confident that Trieste is the first of more acquisitions to come. “Our group would always talk about how our dream was to own a professional sports team, but we never thought it would happen so quickly,” says Johnson. “That’s what happens in this program. We’ve had huge support from our classmates not just as investors, but as connectors leading us to additional opportunities and sponsors. The Wharton network has been a huge help, and we look forward to working with our classmates and students across other cohorts as we pursue opportunities in the future.”
Published as “Hoop Dreams” in the Spring/Summer 2023 issue of Wharton Magazine.