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Calcio’s Revolution: The Fall and Rise of Italian Football

“Look at this.” Joe Tacopina scrolls down his smartphone and leans across the restaurant table to show me a photo of St Mark’s Square in Venice packed with fans waving green, black and orange flags.

“This was the last time that Venezia got promoted. There’s no shortage of fans there, right? And people tell me there is no base of football fans in this city. Local people stop me in the street every day and say ‘thank you for giving us hope.’”

It’s a sunny October day in Mestre, just outside Venice, and the optimism of the 49-year-old New York lawyer, owner of the newly-created Serie D club Venezia FC, is contagious. When he says, “we don’t just want to get into Serie A, we want to get into Europe,” you’re inclined to believe him, even though getting there from calcio’s fourth tier is the football equivalent of scaling Everest.

But it’s also easy to understand the doubters, or those who have forgotten that there was a Serie A team here just over a decade ago, featuring talents like Uruguayan Alvaro Recoba. Venezia – like Parma, another former Serie A club starting again under new owners in Serie D – is emblematic of all that has gone wrong with the management of Italian football in the last 15 years.

It’s hard to believe now, but as recently as the 1999-2000 season, Serie A’s media rights earnings were on a par with those of the Premier League, as money from pay-television flooded into the game. How that money was spent was often reckless and, in some cases, criminal.

The following decade in Italian football was summarised with brutal clarity by journalist Marco Bellinazzo in his book Goal Economy. “Bit by bit Serie A lost its identity and its top position due to an irrational management of the resources from TV rights,” he wrote. The top clubs “didn’t know how to, or didn’t want to, programme investments in a way that could bring long-term benefits.”

Italian football was led sleepwalking to the precipice by a generation of owners who frequently ended up in trouble with the law, either for what they did with their clubs or in their own businesses. Men like Sergio Cragnotti at Lazio, Calisto Tanzi at Parma, Vittorio Cecchi Gori at Fiorentina and Luciano Gaucci at Perugia. All are now gone from Italian football. Some, like Tanzi, are still in prison.

The first wave of regeneration came about a decade ago when a new crop of owners came through, including Diego Della Valle, owner of Tod’s shoes, at Fiorentina, film-maker Aurelio De Laurentiis at Napoli, and Andrea Agnelli at Juventus. All brought a new financial rigour allied to a modernising zeal.

A wave of foreign investment then began. A consortium of Italo-American businessmen including Tacopina, Thomas DiBenedetto and James Pallotta completed the acquisition of AS Roma in 2011. In October 2013, Indonesian Erick Thohir took a 70-per-cent stake in Inter Milan. The following autumn, Canadian Joey Saputo, initially with Tacopina, who had sold his stake in Roma, acquired Bologna. At the time of writing, Sino-Thai entrepreneur Bee Taechaubol was negotiating to take a 48-per-cent stake in AC Milan. More foreign investors will undoubtedly follow.

This new breed of foreign owner is trying to transform their clubs into global businesses, bringing in skilled management from the US, Asia and other parts of Europe. Thohir head-hunted Michael Bolingbroke from Manchester United to become Inter’s chief executive and brought in Michael Williamson, formerly of MLS club DC United and the US Soccer Federation, to be corporate director. Former adidas executive Christoph Winterling was recruited by Roma and then followed Tacopina to Bologna, where he remains as commercial director.

US nous, Italian passion

For Tacopina, the eureka moment came in 2005 at the Rome derby in the city’s Olimpico stadium. “I remember being overwhelmed by the passion, the emotion. It was something that even in the most important American sporting events you just don’t get. But the seats were dirty. I couldn’t buy a jersey or a hat for my kids. At half time I went to get a drink and after 15 minutes the line was a 30-minute line. The scoreboard didn’t work and there was that huge running track around the pitch. There were so many problems with what I was seeing. I sat there and on a napkin, I started writing a list of things to do to fix Italian soccer. Basically, I took the North American sports business model and tried to put that into Italian soccer.”

After one failed attempt to buy Roma in 2008, with billionaire investor George Soros, Tacopina came back in 2011. He had been bitten by the bug. “My mission was to be the first foreign person to purchase a Serie A team,” he says. This time he was successful.

 

Una gran bella giornata. #WeAreOne

A photo posted by Bologna Fc 1909 (@bfc1909_official) on

After four years, he felt that his job was done and turned his attention to a near-bankrupt Bologna. After just one year at Bologna he sold his stake, due to differences with majority shareholder Saputo, and won a licence from Venice’s local authority to form a new club in the city following the bankruptcy of FC Unione Venezia – the third time in a decade the city’s football club had gone bankrupt.

Of Venezia FC, Tacopina says: “This project is the most exciting of them all, because of where we are: the most beautiful city in the world. The team has not been relevant to the city for way too long. The fan base has been utterly neglected and maltreated. But they’re there.”

Tacopina talks a lot about passion but he is also very clear that his interest in Italian football is driven by business logic. “Italian clubs are among the most undervalued franchises in sport,” he says. “Where else can you buy a global brand like AS Roma for €130m? It’s now worth over €400m, three and a half years later. Take a mediocre NBA team, like the LA Clippers. It’s the second team in Los Angeles after the Lakers. They don’t own their arena and they haven’t won anything, ever. They were sold for $2bn. For AS Roma to be only €130m doesn’t make sense. There are players that cost €130m.”

Distressed assets

It is not lost on Tacopina that the opportunity currently attracting foreign investment exists precisely because Serie A clubs have fallen so far behind their European counterparts. “If you go back 15 years, Serie A was a beast – all the best players came,” he says. “Now it’s number three, or four or five maybe. It’s become financially unsustainable. The quality of the league has gone down, and the fan experience isn’t what it should be.”

Italian clubs hold their own in terms of media-rights income, but are well behind the top English, German and Spanish clubs in commercial revenues. And if sponsorship is low, match-day income is a disaster. Violence and racism contribute to keeping people away but the appalling state of most of the country’s council-owned stadiums is the biggest factor.

Italian clubs are among the most undervalued franchises in sport

Built in 1913, Venezia’s little Pierluigi Penzo stadium – reachable only by boat – is one of those. Tacopina has plans for a new sports complex near the city’s Marco Polo airport, with a football stadium, indoor sports arena and commercial area. The plan is for the stadium to be ready as Venezia marches triumphantly into Serie A in four or five years’ time. Critically – and unusually for Italy – the city’s mayor, Luigi Brugnaro, is completely supportive of the project.

“We’ve had some of the top architects in the world look at it. Matt Rossetti [architect for the Red Bull Arena in New York] was here. It’s on the mainland, with great access by road. A brand new theme park is being planned close by. This will be a destination location,” Tacopina says.

The New Yorker – who says he feels more Italian than American – believes that the city of Venice will be a great calling card with global brands, and that building sponsorship income will be relatively easy. “My commercial guys are absolutely salivating. I can’t tell you the number of major sponsors we are speaking to. Some of the biggest companies in the world already want to be associated with this project. The names would blow your mind. We are in negotiation right now with some of the biggest brands in the world, from airlines to luxury goods. Why? It’s Venice.”

Global visibility will be built up with summer tours to key target markets, the kind of activity normally only undertaken by the bigger teams of Serie A. “We are planning two summer tours in the next three years, one in North America and one in China. We are operating like a Serie A team. We have a commercial director, a general director – Serie D teams don’t have things like that. We are a Serie A organisation which happens to be in Serie D because we are a start-up and have to re-boot. Right now the revenues are minimal. But Venezia FC is already relevant again.”

‘Unique’ football culture 

Christoph Winterling got involved in sports marketing in 2000, around about the time when the rot set in in Italian football. He worked for two of the industry’s biggest sports marketing agencies, Sportfive and Infront, and sports goods manufacturers Diadora and adidas, before being brought by Tacopina to Roma in late 2010. Just over six months ago he joined Tacopina in Bologna.

We catch up on golden November afternoon in a café down the road from Bologna’s Renato Dall’Ara stadium and it is immediately clear that Winterling shares much of Tacopina’s optimism about the future.

“I’m convinced that there is great margin for growth in the turnover of Italian clubs,” he says. “It has the biggest potential growth of the top five leagues and has one big advantage: the passion for football here, how people consume football, is unique. It doesn’t exist in any of the other big five leagues.”

He points out that Italian football has another unique selling point: Italy. “On the global markets, Italian football takes with it a city which is known worldwide – Florence, Milan, Rome, Naples, Bologna. These are names that people know and with which they have a positive association. A lot of other top European clubs don’t have that advantage."

The challenge is to make sure that the passion does not simply convert into pay-TV subscriptions but can be used to drive other revenue streams. The new owners will make a big contribution to that, he says, but they have to accept that it will be a slow process, maybe up to 10 years.

The system has to change and the infrastructure of the stadiums has to improve

For many Italian owners, not owning their own stadium has been a convenient excuse for not spending a euro to improve the match-day experience of their fans. At Bologna, Saputo knows that whatever happens long-term – a new build has not yet been ruled out – for the next few seasons the team will play in the Dall’Ara and is investing his own money in the council-owned property. 

Improvements include new seating, new bars with large-screen TVs, a child-oriented fan village and a family sector in the stadium with discounted prices (which is sold out). “We know that at the moment Bologna is not the best team in the world,” Winterling says. “A lot of kids will support the best team or the best players; they become a fan of Messi and Ronaldo and because of that get into Barcelona or Real Madrid. We have to offer them things to make them want to be a fan of Bologna – an emotion at the beginning so they will stay fans of Bologna. We also want people to spend more time at the stadium. Instead of going to a bar before the match, they can now go to the bar in our stadium and see football on the television while they wait for the match.” 

Offering more and better services has gone hand in hand with a restructuring of ticket prices, with increases limited to the best areas of the stadium. The restructure, combined with promotion to Serie A from Serie B, has pushed ticket revenue up 60 per cent on last season.

For corporate clients, a new hospitality area has been created in the main stand. It is divided into an exclusive, 250-seat space with table-service lunch or dinner (also sold out) and a larger standing area, from which you can step onto the running track to follow the team warm-up at close range. The hospitality areas are also available on non-match days for corporate events.

Winterling has also overhauled Bologna’s sponsorship strategy, or, to be more precise, built a strategy where previously there wasn’t one. He has introduced a tiered pricing structure with clear entry-level prices and reduced the number of premium partners, giving them better signage with greater levels of exclusivity. Sponsorship income is up 50 per cent on two seasons ago. The club is now among the top earning clubs outside the big five of Juventus, Milan, Inter, Roma, and Lazio.

Saputo’s investments have brought some immediate returns but there are no illusions here about the scale of the challenge. “There are mid- to long-term opportunities but the system has to change and the infrastructure of the stadiums has to improve,” Winterling says. “The arrival of foreign investors will help but they need to be patient. It will take time because Italian football has to recover the gap, mainly with the Premier League, which has been created in the last few years.”

 

CHANGING THE MINDSET

New owners, new strategies, new revenue streams. But at the heart of all this is 10 events every weekend featuring 90 minutes of football. There is no question that 20 years ago this was the highest quality 90 minutes of football available anywhere, featuring the cream of the world’s talent. So what of the contemporary version, the football which is left when the top players have signed for Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester City or Bayern Munich?

Few people are better placed to answer that than Arrigo Sacchi, whose first period in charge of AC Milan at the end of the 1980s transformed an Italian football still wedded to the defensive catenaccio mentality and included a memorable European Cup semi-final thrashing of Real Madrid in 1989, en route to victory in the final.

Sacchi tells SportBusiness International that he sees a kind of “awakening” at a football level too. Teams like Fiorentina, Napoli and Sassuolo are trying to play a form of football which is “more optimistic, more positive, more attacking. There are now very few teams, even smaller ones, which come only to defend.”

It's difficult to change things in Italy. It's a static, deeply conservative country, afraid of anything new

But the embracing of attacking play is not a part of some enlightened commercial blueprint. The reason is much simpler, he says: globalisation.

“Everybody can now see foreign football leagues and clubs. They can see that 90 per cent of the teams that do well in the Champions League play positive, attacking football, not teams who only think about how to stop the opposition. Even the Italian public is embracing beautiful football in a way that wouldn’t have been the case 20 years ago. Winning is no longer enough.”

The stars may be going elsewhere but they might not be needed, Sacchi suggests. For Serie A to return to the glory days of the 80s and early 90s, he says, the new owners have to put the team ahead of star individuals, a collective philosophy ahead of splashing the cash on the latest big name player. “With money and good players you can win things, but in the long term you don’t convince. At Milan, our philosophy was convincere, divertire e vincere [convince, entertain and win].”

When I try to push the idea of a commercial renaissance he can’t hide his scepticism. “For the moment this great commercial makeover is based on lots of words but very few facts. The only new stadium is the one built by Juventus, and that was four or five years ago. When I was at Atletico de Madrid in 1998-99 – that’s nearly 20 years ago – they even had a private clinic in the stadium, as well as restaurants and so on. We still have many heavily indebted clubs which don’t plan for the long term. We still have to improve a lot at the club management level. There are still very few executives of real value.”

Like most observers, Sacchi believes that new stadiums are the key to the longer-term transformation, not just for creating new revenue streams but in creating an environment where the worst excesses of the local hooligan culture can be eliminated. It is not a coincidence, he argues, that Juventus has returned to its place among Europe’s elite a few years after building their new stadium in Turin.

“It has created a sense of belonging. It is the home of all Juventini. When stadiums are used more completely, with a range of commercial activities, they will contribute even more. The stadium needs to become a reference point for the fans. There’s more respect for the place. Today, who does the stadium belong to? To nobody. Where stadiums belong to the council or the state, everyone feels that they can behave however they like in there. Many are like open prisons and they actually contribute towards the violence. Even the mildest person feels like they are imprisoned in a cage.”

Matching the top clubs of England, Germany, France and Spain in commercial and match-day revenues remains the goal, and new stadiums are the starting point. But it will be a long, hard slog.

“It’s difficult to change things in Italy,” Sacchi concludes. “It’s a static, deeply conservative country, afraid of anything new. At the time of the Romans, the Greeks, the Carthaginians, the Phoenicians – this country was the centre of world culture. Those beyond the Alps were considered the barbarians. But now we’re the dogs chasing the hares.”

 

 

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