Long before Toulon and Racing-Metro opened their bottomless bank accounts, one club and one man ruled the roost when it came to buying your way to the top. Jacques Hughes profiles Stade Francais owner Max Guazzini
Born: 1947 in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, Alpes-Maritime, near the border of France and Italy
The secret of his success: Perfect timing. After studying philosophy and law in Paris, Nice-born Guazzini worked as a legal adviser for French MP (and now Mayor of Paris) Bertrand Delanoe. Delanoe told Guazzini that with newly elected president Francois Mitterand about to deregulate France’s airwaves, he should get into radio. After a meeting with Jean-Paul Baudecroux, founder of pop station NRJ, Guazzini worked his way up the ranks rapidly and after saving the station from closure in 1984 by organising a massive publicity campaign and 300,000-strong march, became the firm’s vice-president and saw his investments rise and rise as NRJ grew into France’s top pop station and concert promoter.
What's he worth?: Who knows. Guazzini keeps his credit cards very close to his chest, but certainly isn’t short of a few euros.
In the club: In 1992 South-east native Guazzini saw an opportunity to invest in one of France’s oldest clubs, the down-at-heel Stade Francais, who were then playing out in front of two men and a no doubt unwilling dog in the Bois de Boulogne. After three years with little success, in 1995 Guazzini orchestrated the merger of Stade Francais with the rugby section of Paris sports club CASG. CASG’s big appeal was their home base at Stade Jean-Bouin, which was to be the new club’s ground, and Guazzini, as president, and at a time when Paris powerhouse Racing Club de France was in decline, attracted then Stade Bordelais coach Bernard Laporte to drop three divisions to coach the club.
As rugby became professional, Laporte used his growing reputation – and Max’s millions – to bring with him Begles-Bordeaux’s championship winning front row of Serge Simon, Vincent Moscato and Philippe Gimbert, and later to attract players like David Auradou, Christophe Dominici, Franck Comba, Diego Dominguez, Marc Leivrement, and Sylvain Marconnet to Jean-Bouin. Although the players were condemned as mercenaries by the southern traditionalists, the squad climbed up to the top tier in successive seasons, before – at the first attempt, beating Perpignan 34-7 at Stade de France in 1998 to win the club’s first championship title in 90 years.
Off the pitch Guazzini’s marketing nous has transformed the club and arguably French rugby itself, turning Paris from a city with less than 5000 regular rugby spectators to one which can boast club crowds of 80,000 four or five times a season. As early as 1996, Guazzini offered free entry for home matches against Lourdes and Avenir Valencien, and later in the same season, let women into Jean-Bouin for free.
Return on investment: As 99% stakeholder, it’s unlikely that Guazzini has recouped anything like the money he invested in the early years of Stade Francais-CASG, but he has turned a nothing club into one of Europe’s biggest teams and strongest rugby brands. As early as 2003, Stade Francais was turning out a profit – a mere 60,000 euros but certainly more than England’s frustrated sugar daddies were seeing – and since then the club’s commercial side has gone from strength to strength.
A successful experiment at playing a league match at Stade de France in 2006 is now repeated up to five times a season, with Guazzini’s tactic of selling tickets for as little as €5 and €10 ensuring 80,000-strong crowds. And they don’t just come to see the rugby, as Guazzini’s pre-match ‘animations’ – fireworks, dancing girls, live music performances – have succeeded in making the Saturday evening games family events for Parisians.
No traditionalist, Guazzini also introduced the infamous pink shirts, and seemingly tries to test the stomachs of fans by unveiling ever-more garish designs every 12 months. And then there’s the Dieux du Stade calendar, in which squad members pose provocatively, with often just a rugby ball protecting their dignity. The south-west may frown, but players from other clubs are reportedly queuing up to be photographed for the publication, which sells up to 100,000 copies a year.
On the pitch it’s hard to imagine Guazzini could have wished for more domestically, as the club repeated their 1998 success in 2000, 2003, 2004 and 2007, and finished runners-up in 2005. European success hasn’t followed, however, with only two losing finals in 2001 and 2005 to show for a comparative under-achievement.
The future: With the club firmly established in France’s top four, Guazzini’s next project is to give Stade Francais a home fit for champions. In 2007, Paris’s city council gave planning permission (by a single vote) for a new stadium at the Jean-Bouin complex. Having resisted a move across town to Stade Charlety, Guazzini has designs on an 18,000-seater stadium with all financial mod-cons – hospitality boxes and a shopping centre. Barring a successful campaign by local protestors who don’t want to lose the ‘omnisports’ facilities of the Jean-Bouin complex, the stadium is planned to open in September 2011 at a current estimate of €110m.
In his own words: “I’d prefer to have 7,000 happy people in our stadium rather than 200 bringing in a fistful of money”.