Italian job | Historic shift for Serie A as aggressive IMG ousts MP & Silva

  • IMG wins global media rights to Serie A with bid worth €367m per season
  • Agency looking for substantial growth in exposure in the US and China
  • MP & Silva founder Riccardo Silva says it was “understandable” the clubs wanted a change

The loss in October of the international rights to Italy’s Serie A, outside Italy, marked the end of an era for the MP & Silva agency. The agency has been selling Serie A rights in some shape or form since 2004. The question now is whether the change in ownership of the rights – with IMG taking over global distribution from next season – represents the start of a new era for Italian football.

IMG begins its work with storm clouds lowering over the Italian game, following Italy’s failure to qualify for next summer’s Fifa World Cup – the first time since 1958 the four-times world champions have not been present at the finals.

The country is still at stage one – shock and denial – of the seven stages of grief. Yet the elimination at the hands of Sweden, which Italian FA president Carlo Tavecchio labelled the “apocalypse”, comes at a time when the Serie A championship is at its most vibrant and competitive for a decade.

Napoli, Roma and Inter are challenging the dominance of Juventus and a new generation of Italian coaches are promoting attacking football. Serie A’s 2.89 goals per game at the end of September was the highest of Europe’s top five leagues. And this – not the national team – is the product that IMG will take to the market.

Numbers game

The immediate benefit for the league is financial. IMG’s deal is worth €367m ($430m) per season, up from the €185.7m per season MP & Silva pays in the current three-year cycle, from 2015-16 to 2017-18. The fee is broken down as follows: €340m per season for Serie A; €12m per season for betting rights; €7m per season for the provision of the match signal; and €8m per season for promotion and marketing of the competition.

A package of international Italian-language rights aimed at overseas Italian communities was won by Italian state broadcaster Rai with a bid of €4m per season. The €371m-per-season total exceeded the league’s target of €300m per season.

A big uplift in rights fees inevitably raises questions about how the investment can be refinanced. From the IMG presentation, details of which were published in the Italian media, the agency appears to be targeting growth in two markets in particular: the US and China. In China, IMG wants a minimum of two live games per matchday on the state broadcaster CCTV, with additional free-to-air coverage on regional channels and a deal for digital rights with a streaming operator such as Tencent or PPTV.

Serie A’s adviser, the Infront Sports & Media agency, published an invitation to tender for international rights in the next three-season cycle, from 2018-19 to 2020-21, on August 7, requiring bids by September 15. In total, the league received 30 bids.

The biggest first-round bids, according to Italy’s main sports daily, Gazzetta dello Sport, were:

  • MP & Silva, €333m per season for all international rights;
  • Mediapro, €260m per season for all international rights;
  • IMG, €250m per season for all international rights;
  • Perform, €221m per season for all international rights excluding China;
  • BeIN Media Group, €105m per season for rights in the Middle East and North Africa.

Following direct negotiations with the bidders led by league director general Marco Brunelli and Infront Italy chief executive Luigi De Siervo, IMG and MP & Silva were almost neck and neck, on about €352m per season, with Mediapro trailing at €315m per season.

Presentations tip the balance

The second-round bids were delivered to the league on October 6, but not opened. On October 10, presentations were made to club presidents by IMG, MP & Silva, Perform, beIN and Mediapro. The bid envelopes were opened after the presentations. The strength of IMG’s presentation – led by Ioris Francini, co-president of IMG’s parent company Endeavor – is said to have been hugely important to the outcome.

Insiders say that some banal factors helped sway the outcome. For example, Francini, an Italian, gave the presentation in a language all 20 club presidents could understand. By contrast, some of the other presentations were given either in English or by people for whom Italian is a second language.

The league had decided that for reasons of transparency each club should cast an open vote at the end of the day and would do so in alphabetical order, with Atalanta going first. The club was considered to have been supportive of MP & Silva so when it cast its vote for IMG there was, according to one well-placed source, a tangible sense that something was afoot. “When more clubs started to vote for IMG”, the source said, “the clubs further down the sequence didn’t want to look as though they were blocking change. It created a psychological pressure and possibly a domino effect. They may have voted the same way anyway in a secret ballot, but we’ll never know.”

Shake-up at MP & Silva 

MP & Silva has held Serie A international rights for the last three cycles: 2010-11 to 2011-12; 2012-13 to 2014-15; and 2015-16 to 2017-18. From 2004 to the centralisation of the rights ahead of the 2010-11 season, the agency sold rights of multiple Serie A clubs through individual deals.

In the wake of the loss, MP & Silva replaced Lösch with Seamus O’Brien, former head of the World Sport Group agency and former owner of the New York Cosmos football club, with Lösch becoming a consultant to the agency.

The three founding members of the agency – Riccardo Silva, Andrea Radrizzani and Carlo Pozzali – were asked by the agency’s Chinese owners, Everbright Securities and Baofeng Technology, to play a greater role in the strategic direction of the company. However, with Radrizzani’s commitments to English Football League club Leeds United and the Eleven Sports premium channel operator, it is not clear how this will work in practice.

IMAGE: Captain Gianluigi Buffon is consoled after Italy’s failure to qualify for the World Cup (Getty Images)

The changes were said to have been based on the agency’s performance over the previous 12 to 15 months, when it had only agreed three significant rights deals. IMG had been more aggressive. In October 2016 it agreed to pay about $122m per season for the global rights to the English FA Cup over six seasons, from 2018-19 to 2023-24. In September 2017, in a joint bid with digital media company Perform, it agreed to pay $350m per year for global media and marketing rights to the Copa Libertadores and Copa Sudamericana, from 2019 to 2022.

MP & Silva has over 70 rights-holder clients, including the Premier League, the Bundesliga, Formula One and the NFL – a large enough portfolio to be able to absorb the loss of Serie A. Silva told Italian media it was “understandable” that the Serie A clubs should seek change after three cycles with the same agency and played down the importance of the property to the agency. Rivals would no doubt see that as putting a brave face on an unpalatable outcome.

The agency showed its first signs of bouncing back by dislodging beIN in November to secure the global media rights for the International Handball Federation’s men’s and women’s World Championships from 2019 to 2025.

Many industry observers believe that O’Brien was brought in with at least one eye on a far more valuable property: the rights to the Asian Football Confederation events, which are expected to come to the market in the next few months. Win that – or even a chunk of what will be a multi-billion-dollar contract – and the loss of Serie A will become a far less painful memory. The end of an era, but maybe the start of a new age.

  • Note to readers: Riccardo Silva is majority owner of SportBusiness Acquisitions Limited, the parent company of SportBusiness Group, which publishes SportBusiness International.

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