Listen to this article
Jean-Claude Blanc, now an impeccably international football executive, had very provincial French beginnings. “I grew up in Savoy until I was 18; I never travelled,” Paris Saint-Germain’s general manager recalls.
We are sitting in PSG’s headquarters in Boulogne, on the southwestern outskirts of Paris. On a photo by Blanc’s television, PSG players brandish last season’s four French trophies. A painting of David Beckham, who finished his career at PSG, adorns a wall. Blanc has come far.
After high school, he went on to take a masters in management programme at Ceram in Nice, which merged with ESC Lille in 2009 to become Skema Business School. Blanc knew Nice from visits to relatives, but the campus at Sophia Antipolis was a lure too. “It was a fairly innovative zone for the time, where in one place you had companies, research centres and universities or schools. The conjunction of the three interested me. ‘Here things must happen that maybe don’t happen elsewhere.’”
The student Blanc already aspired to work in sport. Back then, in the mid-1980s, it was a tiny sector “in which I had no connections”, he says. “But the idea that a significant business side could develop around sports always guided me. At the time you had people like Mark McCormack of [talent management group] IMG, who was the king of that business, who had practically invented it, first by becoming the agent of great athletes before starting to represent events.”
“At Ceram, there was absolutely nothing on the business of sport. So I mainly chose courses on law, marketing, international commerce, to leave all doors open to try to enter a world that was then very narrow.” Ceram, he says, “allowed me to put down bases, helped the young student I was then to understand that to enter the business world you had to know law, finance, accounting, how to conduct negotiations. You need a complete palette of knowledge.”
The school, he adds, “was my first melting pot. There were no foreigners in my graduating class. But it was the first time I encountered people from other French regions. ‘There are Parisians, they don’t think like us, there are Bretons…’ It helped me understand, also through the environment around Sophia Antipolis: ‘Foreign companies come here, so the world is not just in France.’ Then you need to open the window more, and allow yourself to leave.”
In 1986, just as he graduated, Albertville in Savoy was named host of the 1992 Winter Olympics. “That’s my region,” says Blanc. “I told myself: ‘It’s obvious, this is for me, and I will work there.’ The difficulty is that lots of people said, ‘This is for me, I will work there.’ I had to show I was more motivated.”
He met Albertville’s organisers. They told him to come back in a year. “So I went to Los Angeles, on my own initiative.” In 1984, the highly commercial LA Olympics had been the first modern Games to make a profit. Blanc hoped to find lessons there.
He arrived in LA with no connections. “I wasn’t a bad tennis player, so I played tournaments. Through tennis I met the people who organised the Los Angeles Olympics.” When he returned to Albertville, he told the organisers: “Listen, I’m back, but I haven’t wasted my time — I’ve been to Los Angeles, I’ve seen what they did, I’ve written a report that might help you.’ They said, ‘When do you want to start?’ I said, ‘Tomorrow.’”
The Olympics proved an ideal first job. “Lots of things need doing, so people placed confidence in you very young. In three, four, five years you encounter the problems that a company encounters in 20.”
Next, Blanc did an MBA at Harvard Business School. His classmates had “done only impressive things: US Air Force pilots, people who do non-profits in South America, Chinese engineers, New York traders. After thinking you were really good in your sector, you realise, ‘Pfff, the world is incredibly big, with talents everywhere.’” Harvard’s teaching method — analysing case studies in groups — trained him to listen to other people’s views.
When he graduated, his professors told him: “Success is hard to define. What do you want to do, at your core?” He knew: “Not many Harvard MBAs go into sport. In fact, I’ve never met one. But my profound conviction was sport.”
In 1994, he joined Amaury Sport in France, which managed sporting events. In 2001, he moved to the French tennis federation, the FFT.
Then, in 2006, Juventus made him chief executive. The storied Italian football club had just been relegated to Serie B, Italy’s second division, after a match-fixing scandal. “You arrive in this environment that is necessarily dynamic, because you have a mountain of problems to deal with at once,” Blanc says. “Practically 100 days are decisive for the club’s future. If you make a bad decision in those 100 days” — he slaps his hands — “it’s over. Then it would take 20 years to return. In those 100 days we took many good decisions.”
Above all, Juve persuaded most of their stars to stay. Goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, Blanc recalls, “had decided to leave even before the club was relegated”. But after relegation, Blanc recalls the player telling him he would stay one year to help the club gain promotion. Buffon added that after that year, the general manager had to let him leave if he had an offer.
A year later, after Juve’s promotion, Buffon duly came to tell Blanc: “I have an offer from Milan.” Blanc replied: “Give me one hour and I’ll explain why you should stay.”
Blanc recalls: “We did a presentation for Gigi in the big trophy hall. We did the same work as for convincing a sponsor to join us. We built a presentation around him. Why he was significant in the club’s history. Why he would be the next captain. Why we were going to return to the top of Serie A and win everything. Why he would play another Champions League final. The place of the goalkeeper in Juve’s history. And why he was fairly central to our project.”
Afterwards Buffon said he would stay if Juve offered the same deal as Milan. Blanc agreed. Today, Buffon is still at Juve, and Blanc notes: “Some weeks ago he played a Champions League final.”
Blanc loved Italy. He and his children became dual French-Italian citizens. He helped Juventus to become the first big Italian club to build their own stadium. But in 2010, Andrea Agnelli, of Juve’s owning family, became the club’s hands-on president. “It was a disappointment,” Blanc admits. “But when the owner wants to manage, it’s legitimate.” Fortuitously, in 2011, Qatar Sports Investments bought PSG, planning to turn the mediocre club into world-beaters. They hired Blanc.
“What we do isn’t drinking tea with Beckham every day,” he cautions. “It’s also lots of professionalism, managing 350 people, managing a brand worldwide, welcoming 1.3m people a year to arenas in Paris. If tomorrow somebody falls on the stairs at the Parc des Princes [PSG’s stadium], the responsible person is me.”
PSG aim to win the Champions League. Last season Barcelona overwhelmed them in the quarter-finals — but, says Blanc, Barça had the luck of avoiding injuries and suspensions. PSG lost players and lacked strength in reserve to replace them. Anyway, he adds, PSG’s project “is more than simply winning trophies. It’s to build a sporting property. The ambition is not to be the last of the great clubs, not to catch up with Real, Manchester, Barcelona, but to be — and with humility, eh? — the first great club of the digital era. We are lucky to be in a moment of social media, when globalisation of information is instantaneous. A statement by [PSG striker Zlatan] Ibrahimovic crosses the world in seconds — for better and worse.”
Presumably he is recalling Ibrahimovic’s comment in March that France was “a s**t country” that didn’t deserve PSG. However, Blanc’s larger point is that thanks to new media, PSG can gain a global fanbase much quicker than Real Madrid, say, managed last century.
PSG’s revenues hit €474.2m in 2013–14, the fifth-highest in European football, according to business advisers Deloitte. Revenues will rise further, partly because PSG has remodelled its stadium to dedicate nearly 10 per cent of the 47,000 seats to corporate hospitality.
Paris is full of businesses keen to buy expensive seats. Many PSG fans grumble that Blanc has over-commercialised the club. He seems unbothered. “What’s thrilling is that you feel this is a key moment in the club’s life. Tomorrow, or the day after, when somebody else is in this office, it’s up to us to make sure they will say, ‘Well, in 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 they used that moment well!’”