Watch CBS News

How hustle took Rocco Commisso from the Bronx to becoming a billionaire owner of a soccer team

Rocco Commisso: The 60 Minutes Interview
ACF Fiorentina Owner Rocco Commisso: The 60 Minutes Interview 13:40

Tonight, we are going to tell you one of those "only in America" stories, but this one begins and ends on the other side of the Atlantic. Rocco Commisso was 12 years old when his family moved to the United States from southern Italy. With the hustle he learned on the streets of the Bronx and exceptional timing, Commisso built a cable TV empire and a net worth of $8 billion. So, what did he do with his made-in-the-USA fortune? Rocco Commisso returned to the land of his birth we first reported in March...he bought a pro soccer team.

Sharyn Alfonsi: You've described yourself as a hustler. What does that mean?

Rocco Commisso: Well always in the good sense of a hustler-because it could have a terrible sense, right? A hustler is never-- you know, always try to find a way to achieve a certain objective, hustle, hustle. Don't give up. Don't take no for an answer

Sharyn Alfonsi: I've heard that you have no tolerance for people you call spinners.

Rocco Commisso: Right.

Sharyn Alfonsi: What's a spinner?

Rocco Commisso: Spinner is a bull***t artist. I know plenty of those guys. I have a pretty good idea who the hell I'm dealing with.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Did you learn that in the Bronx?

Rocco Commisso: No, my mother gave it to me when I was born.

Rocco Commisso doesn't suffer fools, but like most Italian soccer fans, he does suffer.

Four years ago he bought the team in Florence – where game day is filled with more agony and ecstasy than a Puccini opera.

We watched as the city's die hard fans – called the Tifosi – endured a collective, 90-minute-long breakdown.

Commisso, who is 73, knows the Tifosi follow his reactions. So he tries to keep a poker face as he chews wads of nicotine gum.

Sharyn Alfonsi: How many of these do you go through a game?

Rocco Commisso: Fifteen. Twenty. 

Sharyn Alfonsi: Fifteen, twenty. Depends on the game, right?

When Commisso bought Fiorentina it ticked two boxes: first, the $170 Million price was a bargain for a European club. Second, it met the demand by his wife that if he insisted on buying a team, it had to be someplace nice.

Rocco Commisso: When I landed in Florence outside the airport, there were a mass of people there. And the first words that I used, "Chiamata mi Rocco. Call me Rocco," because over here, titles are very important. I said, "I don't need titles. You don't have to call me Mister. Just call me Rocco." And today, they call me Rocco.

Fiorentina – which is knicknamed "La Viola" or "The Purple" – has not won a league championship since 1969. The Tifosi got sick of waiting and ran the previous owner out of town. 

Rocco Commisso: The tifo, the fans, first, they're everything. But they could be nasty if you don't win

Sharyn Alfonsi: The highs are high and the lows are low it seems like--

Rocco Commisso: Right. but they can't kick Rocco outta here, you know? They think they-- they gonna criticize me and kick me out. They-- no, that can't happen. Rocco's a little different.

Sharyn Alfonsi: How are you different?

Rocco Commisso: First of all, there's not been anyone here that's put in the money that I put in in a short period of time. And I go back to the Medicis, from 500 years ago. If I lose $500 million, $400 million, I'm not gonna go and wash the dishes again the way I did when I was a young man, so watch out what you do because you don't know what is going to come next.

Rocco Commisso's journey to the owners box in Florence began here, by the subway in the Bronx. His father, a carpenter, and his older brother came to the U.S. in the 50s to escape poverty. A few years later, they sent for Rocco, his mother and two sisters.

Rocco Commisso: When we came here in '63, my brother bought the house. God bless him. And this was, like, a luxury to us. And we lived upstairs on the second floor. 

Commisso's English was terrible, but he played a mean accordion, so at age 13 he cut his first deal. Rocco agreed to perform for free at a Bronx theater if the manager helped get him into the Catholic all-boys high school Mount Saint Michael Academy. It is still a launching pad for young men from immigrant families. 

Rocco Commisso: Even though I had not taken the test to get in, I asked the manager to please send a recommendation letter. He did, and they admitted me. 

Sharyn Alfonsi: So you never took the test, but did you have to play the accordion?

Rocco Commisso: They didn't let me play the accordion. The band did not-- did not have the accordion.

Sharyn Alfonsi: But just on your accordion skills alone you were given entrance?

Rocco Commisso: I got lucky or hustled. Whichever way you wanna call it.

He kept hustling. Everyday, before and after school, he worked at his family's luncheonette near the subway station to pay his high school tuition.

Rocco Commisso and Sharyn Alfonsi walk through a school building 60 Minutes

Rocco Commisso: So I used to get paid $1 an hour, and through that $1 an hour I paid four years of Mount Saint Michael schooling. Now, it didn't cost a lota money then, but it was still something.  

Commisso wanted to be an engineer. But a dollar an hour wasn't going to pay for college. So Commisso hunted down a scholarship.

For a sport he always loved: soccer. Nevermind that his high school didn't have a team and he had not played much since coming to America.

Sharyn Alfonsi: And somehow you end up with a soccer scholarship to Columbia. How does that happen?

Rocco Commisso: Hustle. I needed money to go to school, so I asked the gym teacher to go and call the NYU coach. The NYU coach puts me on the American – Czechoslovakia team in the-- German American League, sees me play six games, he says, "Yeah, I like the kid. So let me help him get into NYU," which he did. And they gave me 50% scholarship, but that was not enough. So I then told the gym teacher, "Go and call the coach at Columbia now." In the space of three to four weeks they give me admissions to Columbia and a full scholarship.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Had they seen you play?

Rocco Commisso: No. I asked that question after they admitted me, I said, "But let me ask this. You give me all this money and you don't wanna see me play?" He says, "Rocco, if you're good enough for NYU you're good enough for Columbia."

Commisso became team captain and led Columbia to its first NCAA Tournament. After graduation and an MBA, he made his way to Wall Street. At night though, he was helping his brother run a disco. Rival clubs played the Bee Gees, but not Commisso. He chose to play pop music from Italy.

Rocco Commisso: I was really into Italian music and came up with this idea that by specializing in something as opposed to being just like anybody else, you know, we could do well. And nobody could touch us in terms of the competition because nobody had it. 

Commisso became an executive in the cable TV industry just as it exploded. Then, in 1995, he decided it was time to start a business he named Mediacom. Like the disco, he designed a plan to seize an opportunity others had missed.

Rocco Commisso: There was an eight-page paper that talked about what I foresee in terms of the cable business,

Sharyn Alfonsi: What did you foresee?

Rocco Commisso: And what I foresaw is the fact that sooner or later we're gonna get deregulated, and there's a great opportunity to do well in the smaller markets of the U.S., the rural markets, largely because nobody wanted them.

Rocco Commisso at the Mediacom office 60 Minutes

Rocco Commisso believed those small markets hid buried treasure, 600,000 miles of cable used to carry computer data through places such as the corn belt and deep south. He risked his life savings to buy up the small systems. Again, timing and luck were on his side. Today, Mediacom provides broadband in 22 states. And Rocco Commisso's net worth is  $8 billion.

It's a private company. Catherine Commisso, Rocco's wife of 47 years, works there. So does his sister, Italia, and his son, Joe. Outside Mediacom headquarters in upstate New York is a bocce court. Inside, espresso flows. Commisso told us he had a streak of 25 years of profits and has never laid off workers.  

Sharyn Alfonsi: I have heard so many people say, "It's not personal; it's business."

Rocco Commisso: That's crap, ya know? I think the personal, frankly has a lot to do with why companies fail or succeed unfortunately or fortunately there's no one like me in our business and I'm talking about the media, newspapers. But I hate to destroy people's lives because I have to go in and make an extra million dollars.

Commisso made a point to us that he does not own a yacht, a mansion on the beach or a private jet. Of course, we had to point out he did buy an Italian soccer team. 

Rocco Commisso: When I came here, I used three things fast, fast, fast-- that the cost will be okay, you know, within my means, and control, control, control. I control or no money from Rocco. That's the way it works.

Sharyn Alfonsi: What's harder, running a company like Mediacom or running a soccer team?

Rocco Commisso: This is significantly more difficult. I get more criticism here than in 1500 communities in the U.S.

The American owner is under relentless scrutiny by Fiorentina fans who demand that he shells out whatever it costs to bring in stars and end their 50-year championship drought.

Fiorentina fans, also known as Tifosi 60 Minutes

Then there's been times when he's lost it with the unforgiving Italian press.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Have you ever thought, "What have I done? What did I get myself into"?

Rocco Commisso: No.

Sharyn Alfonsi: It's a lot of aggravation.

Rocco Commisso: But that's not me. No. I made the decision. I'm gonna stick with the decision. 

True to Rocco's way, he's playing the long game, by spending $100 million on this. It is called Viola Park. The Commissos showed us around what will be one of the largest soccer facilities in Europe for developing young male and female players. But this is Italy…

Rocco Commisso: You see that opening there where you have the two V's--

Sharyn Alfonsi: Yes.

Rocco Commisso: Right in the middle? We had to break the building apart because there's a Roman wall there, rocks.

Sharyn Alfonsi: (LAUGH) Stop it. You hit a Roman wall?

Rocco Commisso: Yeah, So, we had to uncover it, cover it up. Gotta break the build-- we could not build on top of the Roman wall.

Despite the agita and a so-so season, Rocco Commisso still seems to love this business. He's become one of the most famous americans in Italy and adores his players. Some who look like Michaelangelo himself may have carved them out of marble.

Rocco Commisso with a team player 60 Minutes

Rocco Commisso: My job is to hug, and kiss em, throw my arms around them and hope that they do better the next time.

Sharyn Alfonsi: No tough talk?

Rocco Commisso: You know, they get the message indirectly, you know, that things gotta change here. 

Sharyn Alfonsi: How do they get the message?

Rocco Commisso: You know, they get the message. Never mind.

And if you are wondering if Commisso still plays a mean accordion – here's your answer.

Our visit to Florence ended with dinner and a serenade by the billionaire from the Bronx.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Do you think if you had stayed in Italy you'd have been able to achieve the success that you have today

Rocco Commisso: No. No way. This is truly the land of opportunity. It gave this poor soul, okay, yeah, the opportunity to become something, somebody..and that's the beauty of America.

Sharyn Alfonsi: You still believe in the American Dream.

Rocco Commisso: Absolutely, yeah. This is the last hope in the world.

Rocco Commisso has given millions to his alma maters and has contributed to scholarships for nearly 3,000 students across the U.S., including many first-generation immigrants like him.

Rocco Commisso: I just wanna be known as the guy that nothing, success, never changed him.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Just Rocco.

Rocco Commisso: Just Rocco.

Produced by Guy Campanile. Associate Producer, Lucy Hatcher. Field Producer, Sabina Castelfranco. Broadcast Associate, Elizabeth Germino. Edited by Michael Mongulla.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.