Fashion, tourism and Tessmann: a US plan to make Venezia a global brand

Not even Venezia were sure what they were getting when they signed Tanner Tessmann from FC Dallas in 2021. The club’s general manager at the time, Alexander Menta, described the midfielder during an interview with Grant Wahl as “my big bet”. He loved Tessman’s size, athleticism and work ethic but those attributes alone do not make an elite soccer player. “Was it like a normal purchase where it was green lights all over the board? No,” said Menta. “And I told him the same thing.”

Tessmann had made his debut for the senior US men’s national team a few months earlier but would not represent them again until this September. The two-and-a-half years in between have been as winding as the canals that cut through Venice’s 126 islands. Now, though, it feels like he and his club may be finding their way out to the open water of the lagoon.

Venezia were not supposed to reach the highest level of Italian soccer, Serie A, in 2021. They had not played in the top-flight for two decades, and were only restored from bankruptcy in Italy’s fourth tier by a consortium of American investors six years before. After climbing two divisions in the shortest time possible, Venezia had been relegated from Serie B in 2019, only to receive a post-season reprieve when another club, Palermo, suffered a financial crisis of their own and went down to Serie C instead.

The club’s president throughout this period was Joe Tacopina, a New York lawyer turned serial Italian soccer investor who had previously been part of ownership groups at Roma and Bologna. In 2020, he was bought out by fellow shareholder Duncan Niederauer.

A former CEO of the New York Stock Exchange, Niederauer wanted to take Venezia in a different direction. He and Tacopina shared a belief that the club had potential to develop a global fanbase thanks to its setting in a unique city, a place that draws millions of tourists every year. What could be more romantic, after all, than a football team whose stadium – the Stadio Pier Luigi Penzo – is most easily reached by boat?

Yet they differed in their vision for what that would look like. After completing his takeover, Niederauer hired Menta, a 29-year-old Venezia fan from Pennsylvania who had never worked in soccer before, to lead the club’s analytics department.

Menta had cold-called him after reading about the takeover, talking his way into an opportunity with his sheer enthusiasm and knowledge of the field. His player recommendations helped transform a team expected to battle relegation into one that instead finished fifth and won promotion to Serie A through the playoffs.

Tessmann and his fellow American Gianluca Busio were signed in the following transfer window. Menta identified them for their potential on the pitch, but of course, these moves also tied into the club’s efforts to grow their international appeal.

Tacopina had rebranded the club during his time as president, swapping the winged lion on its crest for a more aggressive depiction. “The old lion says, ‘Welcome to our visitors, to our city; be safe,’” Tacopina said at the time. “This lion says, ‘Get the fuck out or we’ll kill you.’”

This was not the sell that Niederauer had in mind. He brought back Ted Philipakos to be the club’s Chief Brand Officer and Sonya Kondratenko as the Media Director, two more Americans who had been part of the Venezia project in its earlier chapters.

Before the club’s return to Serie A in 2021, they swapped kit supplier from Nike to Kappa and collaborated to create a collection of four fashion-forward fits. The astonishing designs included a black home jersey that recreated a trompe l’oeil Venetian wall texture, as seen on facades around the lagoon.

The marketing campaign that accompanied their release sold Venezia less as a football club than a lifestyle brand. So did the opening of a new club shop, one year later, designed to feel like a high-end fashion boutique, with only a handful of carefully curated items on display. From 2022, the club employed the German design agency Bureau Borsche to develop the next set of kits, as well as a new, stylized, club badge. Esquire magazine labeled them as Fashion FC.

This rebrand was highly effective. Philipakos told Esquire that 96% of merchandise sales were coming from outside Italy. Success on the pitch, though, was harder to come by. Venezia could not survive a single season in Serie A, relegated at the end of the 2021-22 campaign in last place.

For both of their new American players, it was a chastening experience. Busio came with higher expectations, a player who had made 65 appearances for Sporting Kansas City at 19 years old and was a part of the USMNT’s Gold Cup-winning side in the summer that he arrived. He made a bright start, scoring in a draw against Cagliari, but faded with his team as the season progressed.

Less was asked of Tessmann, who had made only a handful of appearances for FC Dallas over the year-and-a-half before joining Venezia. He got just six Serie A starts, and he received scant consideration from the new manager Ivan Javorčić after his team’s relegation.

That chapter was mercifully brief. Javorčić was fired after a dismal 12 games in charge and replaced by Paolo Vanoli. The latter appreciated Tessmann’s physicality yet still struggled to find a home for him at first. Only after Mato Jajalo, signed from Udinese to serve as the team’s regista, tore his cruciate ligament in February this year, did things start to fall together for the American.

Tessmann, who had struggled previously when asked to orchestrate play from the centre of a midfield three, was drafted back into that position as a matter of necessity. Unexpectedly, he thrived, showing a calmness and quality in possession that had previously been lacking.

Vanoli explained such improvement as the result of old-fashioned hard work on the training ground. “I always ask a lot of my players,” he said after watching Tessmann score in an impressive 3-2 win over Parma in October. “But you have to be prepared to wait for what you’re asking for.”

For a time, Busio seemed to be on the opposite track, no longer a guaranteed starter as Venezia rallied to finish eighth last season in Serie B. But his form in this campaign has been much better, starting 12 out of 13 games alongside Tessmann, mostly in a box-to-box role. “Gianluca has reached a new cycle,” said Vanoli in September. “He finally wants to become a footballer. Young players need to learn lessons and you have to be severe with them sometimes. I have been with him quite a bit.”

Tessmann and Busio were called up together this week to the US Men’s Olympic Soccer Team for a training camp in Spain. Still just 22 and 21 respectively, they have long careers ahead of them. Neither appears to be in a rush, though, to leave one of European football’s most extraordinary settings.