Bringing Madonna and Messi to Israel, billionaire says he’s just getting started
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Interview

Bringing Madonna and Messi to Israel, billionaire says he’s just getting started

Sylvan Adams reveals he’ll sponsor Israeli team in Tour de France, admits Madonna delivered ‘bad performance’ in Tel Aviv, describes being ‘very frustrated’ with Israeli red tape

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Canadian-Israeli philanthropist Sylvan Adams (courtesy Velo Images)
Canadian-Israeli philanthropist Sylvan Adams (courtesy Velo Images)

Canadian-Israeli billionaire Sylvan Adams has sponsored some of the largest headline-grabbing events in Israel over the past two years — the Giro d’Italia bike race, Madonna’s appearance at the Eurovision song contest, the SpaceIL effort to land a spacecraft on the moon and, most recently, a soccer match featuring Argentine superstar Lionel Messi.

Not all of these events were total success stories — the spacecraft, named Beresheet, crashed on the lunar surface, and even Adams agrees that Madonna delivered a “bad performance” in Tel Aviv earlier this year.

But Adams, eager to present his adopted country in a positive — or, as he insists, “normal” — light, is determined to continue to pour money into high-profile events that will be broadcast to hundreds of millions of people across the world.

In a far-reaching interview just before last Tuesday’s friendly between Messi’s Argentina versus Uruguay, Adams, 59, announced that an Israeli cycling team will for the first time participate in next year’s Tour de France.

“The Tour de France is seen by 2.6 billion viewers. It’s one of the largest watched events in the world, and we will have our beautiful blue and white uniforms, and I guarantee that at least one Israeli will be competing at the Tour de France,” he said. “We’re making history and I’m very proud of it.”

Adams, who made a fortune as president of one of Canada’s largest real estate firms and moved to Israel in 2015, also reminisced about the trials and tribulations of a new immigrant trying to stage world-class events that require heavy logistical lifting.

“It was difficult for me in the beginning because, for example, the Giro could not happen unless the country agreed to it,” he recalled. “I needed the police, they had to close the roads. You know that they actually made me sign for the roads during the three days of the Giro. I was responsible — if anything happened, it was my fault.”

Having to deal with various government ministries was “a very frustrating experience,” he said.

But since the Giro — which he said was the “biggest event in the history of the country” — turned out to be a great success, he now enjoys a “pretty high level of credibility” among Israeli officials, he said.

Going forward, Adams, who calls himself a “self-appointed ambassador at large for Israel,” said he wants to create a $200 million endowment to which wealthy Diaspora Jews and the Israeli government would contribute to secure funds for future major events.

“Because I think it would be really good for us, these types of projects, and this endowment would fund automatically a steady flow of these kinds of events,” he said.

“Now, I’m happy to do it on my own, but my firepower is limited to the firepower of one individual, even if it’s pretty good. I’ve been spending a lot of money on this stuff and I really believe in it. But I’d love to have partners in this and amplify this, and really just have it happen automatically without having to reach out to the government on a project-by-project basis.”

What follows are excerpts of our conversation, edited for clarity and brevity.

The Times of Israel: You’ve put a lot of money into bringing to Israel the Giro d’Italia, Madonna and now Messi. Why are you doing this? What’s your motivation?

Sylvan Adams: I have a number of projects on the go, but I’ve done several projects that are on the same theme, which twofold: firstly, to project Israel on the world stage to sports fans who represent really the massive majority of people, who are generally apolitical, and who, if pushed to give an opinion on Israel would probably have a negative impression about the country.

Soccer star Leo Messi, left, is welcomed in Tel Aviv by philanthropist Sylvan Adams, November 17, 2019 (Oded Karni)

Why? Because there’s a steady drumbeat of really unidimensional coverage here which shows us ultimately in an unfavorable way, as a war zone and all kinds of things.

My projects are intended to reach out to really large audiences. If we take the Giro as an example, because bike racing takes place outdoors, they got to see the entirety of our country from Acre in the north all the way down to Eilat in the south, and in an unvarnished way — without preaching to them. We’re just reaching out to sports fans and saying: Here we are, this is what we look like.

You and I both live in this normal country where cafes are full and people walk on the street and we go through the things of any normal modern Western country, and we are open, tolerant, and diverse, and free, and democratic — and most of all, we’re safe. So come visit. It’s a very simple message out to people who are not political.

My second goal is to engender national pride and happiness and cohesion amongst our people. Our society looks sometimes too divided, and this is a way to bring people together and to remember and have national and patriotic pride in their country, and to remember that we’re really all in this together.

Okay, so one group of people would call this brilliant hasbara —

I’m sorry, I will object to that — it is not hasbara [pro-Israel advocacy]. I am not preaching to anybody. I am showing Israel to the world in an unvarnished way. There is no preaching here, and it’s not political.

It’s sports, and I’m reaching out to sports fans and showing them they have not seen [the real Israel] because they’re getting hasbara from the media, which is unidimensional coverage that is only portraying Israel in one way. And here I’m saying, ‘Okay, look for yourself, decide for yourself.’

I’m not preaching. ‘Watch the football match, watch the bicycle race, watch Eurovision, watch whatever it is — watch and decide for yourself.’ That’s not hasbara, that’s just sports and culture.

Uruguayan fans at a soccer game between Argentina and Uruguay at the Bloomfield stadium in Tel Aviv, November 18, 2019. (Flash90)

Is your goal reaching the unaffiliated, because as they say in America, “haters gonna hate”? As you are aware, the boycott movement is not taking this lying down.

You know, I love what you just said because “haters gonna hate” is exactly the people I’m not able to talk to. I don’t want to talk to them; they have an agenda. I believe they are small in number. I think we have many more friends than we have haters out there.

But the haters make a lot of noise, you’re absolutely right, and haters gonna hate. So let’s talk to the other people. First of all, the mere fact that these two teams [Argentina and Uruguay] came shows that we have friends. People want to come to Israel.

But what do you respond to critics of Israel who call this “sports washing”? Those who say you’re presenting Israel as a normal, beautiful, open country, while making people forget about the injustices and the occupation, and so on?

I’m going to quote you again: “Haters gonna hate.” So, they come with an agenda. They’re not interested in seeing the reality, they want to label us, and tarnish us with those labels. And I say, ‘Come and look at the real Israel.’ Sports washing, this is a stupid idea. Every time we do something it’s going to be something-washing? So science washing, and technology washing, and startup washing, and everything we do is washing?

Listen, the truth is all we’re doing is living like normal people. So you and I live in this normal world, and they are living in a world of hate. I prefer our world. We’re happier. We walk around, it’s nice, we smile.

Critics could say that Sylvan Adams lives in a luxury apartment on the Tel Aviv beach and only sees one part of Israel, but ignores the other Israel — social inequality, discrimination against Israeli Arabs, millions of Palestinians who are stateless and so on. If you only focus on the beautiful Israel, are you not ignoring the country’s problematic aspects?

I didn’t say “beautiful Israel,” I said “normal Israel.” And every country has its issues — fine.

I did two things: I subsidized about a third of the tickets that are being sold [to the Messi match] so that they would be affordable for people, so about one-third of the tickets are under NIS 100 ($29), which is a super low price, so that a family can come and enjoy the football match and it will not be elitist.

Because certainly my projects are not elitist — the Giro was free, you could stand in the street and watch a world class event. I am anti-elitist, I want to bring us together.

Cyclists make their way down the highway on Stage 2 of the Giro D’Italia race from Haifa to Tel Aviv on May 5, 2018. (Fabio Ferrar/Giro D’Italia)

Here’s the title I use on my business card: “Self-appointed ambassador at large for Israel.” This is who I am. I am an ambassador for this country. I love this country. I moved from Canada, I didn’t have to come here. If it was such a terrible country I wouldn’t have come here. It’s a good country, and I don’t care what anyone says.

Yes, we can be criticized, yes we can do better, yes we can build institutions and provide better services to all of our people, of course including the Arab communities, we need to hug each other a little bit more, and I’m doing [it] in my small way. I’m trying to work on projects like that, and I’m very proud of it.

Practically, how does a new immigrant like you go about organizing these events? How do you get Madonna and the Argentinian national team to come here?

I was pretty successful before I came here, which is why I have the means to do it, and I’m devoting the next chapter of my life to the themes I’ve described earlier and promoting this beautiful place, so I’m pretty good at getting things done.

I was new here, you’re absolutely right, and it was difficult for me in the beginning because, for example, the Giro, it could not happen unless the country agreed to it. So I needed the police, they had to close the roads.

You know that they actually made me sign for the roads during the three days of the Giro, I was responsible — if anything happened, it was my fault.

And I had to have private security and all kinds of things for it, so I went around to the different ministries and it was a very frustrating experience. I had to introduce myself. They’d never heard of the Giro, of course, and eventually, I focused on the audience and explaining to them that hundreds and hundreds of millions of people were going to see us, and it was taking place outdoors with helicopter photography and everything else.

A cyclist in action during time trials at the opening of Giro d’Italia, Tour of Italy, cycling race in Jerusalem, Friday, May 4, 2018. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

The truth is, I don’t think they really believed me. And I was at this for over a year, to try to bring the government on board, and eventually, I guess I projected enough credibility that they actually started to come on board.

And I’ll tell you, in the case of the soccer match, we kept the government out. This is entirely privately financed through private sponsorship, and I’m making up the difference between the cost and the revenues, I am underwriting the entire project.

Argentinian football player Lionel Messi at the friendly football match between Argentina and Uruguay at the Bloomfield stadium in Tel Aviv on November 18, 2019. (Flash90)

By the way, how much poorer will you be after this game? How much is it costing you?

I don’t even know. I’m going to see what the bill is at the end. I truly don’t know. But even if I did, I probably wouldn’t share it. I’d rather not talk about money, I want to talk about soccer.

This isn’t a business transaction, it’s a philanthropic one. And it’s not a washing thing, sports washing or otherwise, it’s just a gift to the people of Israel — come, have a good time, and enjoy the soccer match. I’m bringing you world class events and bringing the people together in pure enjoyment of knowing that we’re witnessing the best of the best.

You mentioned a little bit of frustration before. Are you in touch with the Israeli government? Who is your contact there? Do you get sufficient support from them?

Before the Giro, definitely not. After the Giro, I’d say that I have a pretty high level of credibility. They saw how huge this was. This was the biggest event in the history of the country. So they saw what it was, they saw the effect, they saw the media coverage, they knew about the nearly 1 billion television viewers.

They understood that this is actually important. And they told me that they just don’t support this kind of thing financially, and they told me at the time — so I have to be nice to them — that they gave me the highest amount they had ever given for any event in terms of financial contribution.

Which was?

At the time, it was NIS 20 million ($5.8 million). But it cost a lot of money to bring them here. It cost a lot.

So I was a bit disappointed in that number because I felt that they didn’t really understand the impact, so here’s how I want to solve this problem in the future. I have an idea. It’s too difficult to go to them project by project, which is why with this football match I didn’t even bother with them.

Because first of all, we don’t have a government so there’s no budget — the timing was terrible for this — and really, decisions have to be made quickly and we can’t wait for the government. I spent a year working with them on the Giro, and decisions came out a little too slow. So I have a solution for this problem.

Argentina fans at a soccer game between Argentina and Uruguay at the Bloomfield stadium in Tel Aviv, November 18, 2019. (Flash90)

I’d like to create an endowment, a huge endowment, maybe. I’m going to throw out a number, maybe $200 million, where it would be largely private donors, both from Israeli contributors and rich Jews from the Diaspora, and I would appreciate a contribution from the government of Israel.

Because I think it would be really good for us, these types of projects, and this endowment would fund automatically a steady flow of these kinds of events. Believe me, there are so many events we could bring here.

And I don’t think anyone ever thought of doing this before, but it’s a beautiful thing. It shows us unvarnished to the outside world, to sports or music fans who really aren’t political, but have this negative impression of us, and it brings our people together.

Now, I’m happy to do it on my own, but my firepower is limited to the firepower of one individual, even if it’s pretty good, and I’ve been spending a lot of money on this stuff and I really believe in it. But I’d love to have partners in this and amplify this, and really just have it happen automatically without having to reach out to the government on a project-by-project basis.

How close were we to this game tonight being canceled in light of the rockets the Palestinian Islamic Jihad fired at Israeli cities?

I don’t know. What would have happened if we went into an all-out invasion of Gaza? In this kind of an instance, I don’t see how a sporting event is even relevant, because when we’re talking about an open, serious conflict, I think that sport takes a back seat. It’s just a sporting event, after all. Even if it’s a nice one it’s still just a sporting event.

But did people tell you at some point, “Sylvan, I think we have to cancel”?

It could have happened, and frankly, I don’t even want to talk about the sporting event when the people in the south are under fire — I think that talking about a simple sporting event is really out of place.

It would have been a shame if this would have continued, it would have been terrible as hell for them in the south — it’s the actual pure definition of terrorism. Because it doesn’t kill that many people, it hardly causes any casualties, but it puts the people in the south under attack.

A rocket fired from the Gaza Strip leveled a home in Mishmeret, north of Tel Aviv, and injured seven on March 25, 2019. (Faiz Abu Rmeleh/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images/via JTA)

But how close were people to saying, “We can’t do this game, it’s too dangerous”? Was there at some point a real concrete threat of this event being called off?

I can’t really tell you how close it was. Both of the teams had advance teams here on the ground. There was one bad day [when sirens blared] in Tel Aviv, but I think it’s a shame that outside of the south we live in this bubble, where our citizens are being bombarded with these rockets, and we live in this bubble. Their advance teams didn’t really feel this extreme pressure.

So I can’t truly answer your question because we were doing the planning for this all along, all through the whole thing, and of course I’m thrilled that there’s a ceasefire right now, that the rockets have stopped. I’m thrilled for the citizens in the south.

Israelis love Messi, and the Giro was amazing. Israelis were very proud of Space IL, to which you also contributed, even though it crashed. Madonna’s performance, however, was criticized as underwhelming, to be gentle. Do you agree with those critics?

I was there in the arena and of course I agree with the critics — it was a bad performance. I’m not trying to defend Madonna, but I spoke to her just earlier in the evening, and she had a very hoarse voice. I don’t know what she had, but her voice wasn’t good.

I’m not trying to defend her. I hope that she sings better than that usually, and I’ll agree with the critics that it was a bad performance.

Madonna on stage at the Eurovision Song Contest at Tel Aviv Fairgrounds, May 17, 2019. At bottom left is a dancer bearing the Palestinian flag on his shirt. (Michael Campanella/ Getty Images/via JTA)

But I had one specific goal in bringing Madonna. The Eurovision is unknown in North America. And I wanted to bring a big American star in order to create interest and have this be the most watched, most successful Eurovision ever.

I really wanted to add to the event to make it bigger and better, with a wider reach, and whether Madonna sang well or didn’t sing well, I’d say that the goal was achieved.

So you don’t regret it.

I certainly don’t regret it. The publicity that we got by having Madonna there, that was my goal. Whether she actually sang well for the audience or didn’t, that’s a minor thing for me, and it’s unfortunate, and it’s too bad for her. Because it doesn’t affect the project.

What’s your next project?

I like this question. I own this professional cycling team, the Israel Cycling Academy. And we just are about to go into the highest division, let’s call it in Major League Baseball terms the major leagues as opposed to AAA, where we’ve competed until now.

Canadian-Israeli billionaire and cycling enthusiast Sylvan Adams (courtesy)

Now we’ve gone up to the major leagues and we will be in the Tour de France for the first time — an Israeli team in the Tour de France.

The Tour de France is seen by 2.6 billion viewers. It’s one of the largest watched events in the world, and we will have our beautiful blue and white uniforms, and I guarantee that at least one Israeli will be competing at the Tour de France.

We’re making history and I’m very, very proud of it, and so stay tuned with that. We’re going to have a press conference on December 11 introducing the team to the public.

And then I have another beautiful announcement, on January 15, at the Peres Center, a huge announcement for another big mega project. I don’t want to expose Israel one person at a time.

Small delegations of people coming here, that’s great. But I’m too impatient for that. I want hundreds and hundreds of millions of people to be watching my projects, and I have another one like this, which I cannot divulge.

Give me a hint. Is it the Super Bowl?

By the way, you know how many people watch the Super Bowl? One hundred and twelve million people watched last year’s Super Bowl.

So we’re talking billions versus a near 100 million, so I can tell you what it’s not: it’s not the Super Bowl. But it’s a big thing that will be seen by hundreds of millions of people.

Come to the press conference on January 15. I’ve got to keep it under wraps until then, but the deal is done, it’s just that the other parties involved — this is the way their schedule worked and they wanted to do it in January.

And, here’s my motto, just to finish off: My motto is, “I’m just getting started.” So stay tuned, there will be lots more.

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