- January 6, 2019
- Posted by: worldsoccerinstitute.com
- Category: Business plans
By Rory Smith | NEW YORK TIMES
FLORENCE, Italy — As soon as the final parking space is taken on Saturday afternoon, long before kickoff, the roads around Verona’s Stadio Bentegodi will go into lockdown.
Crack counterterrorism units — as well as Italy’s regular police and the carabinieri (military police) — will patrol the streets near the stadium. It is an unprecedented security measure for a city whose two soccer teams, Hellas and Chievo, tend to labor in quiet mediocrity.
These, though, are unusual times. Verona’s authorities are expecting some 30,000 fans to descend on the Bentegodi, a brisk 30-minute walk from the city’s historic heart. No chances are being taken for an event that, according to Angelo Sidoti, Verona’s vice prefect, “has assumed a worldwide significance.”
It feels like an age since Serie A saw itself in that light. For almost two decades, Italy’s top division has had an air of faded grandeur, of inescapable decline. Its reputation has been tarnished by corruption and its image damaged by empty, crumbling stadiums.
This summer, the club jettisoned its longstanding policy of slow, steady growth in favor of immediate success: Agnelli brought Leonardo Bonucci, the Italy defender, back to Turin after a season at A.C. Milan and, more important, worked with Jorge Mendes, Ronaldo’s agent, to complete what has been called il colpo del secolo: the deal of the century. Ronaldo has won three Champions Leagues in a row, and five over all. He is the competition’s all-time leading scorer. If anyone can deliver European domination, he can.
At Ronaldo’s age, though, even Juventus might have balked at the cost of the move — and in particular that four-year contract; by the time it ends, Ronaldo will be 37 — if it was not for the commercial, and financial, benefits a player of his unique profile can bring to his club.
If anything, though, the impact on social media has been more impressive. Ronaldo has almost 335 million followers across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram; as Juventus had hoped, a fraction of those have migrated to the club’s accounts with its new signing. The club added four million new followers on Instagram in the weeks since Ronaldo signed, and an extra two million likes on Facebook (curiously, there has been a much less dramatic uptick on Twitter: only another 150,000 followers). Juventus had more YouTube views than any soccer club in the world in July. All of that has a real impact; all of it can be tangibly monetized, by selling access to those accounts to sponsors.
Juventus’s rivals, on the surface, should dread that economic impact. This is a club, after all, that has already outstripped all of its domestic opponents on and off the field, a team that is so secure in its domestic primacy that it can afford to focus almost exclusively on European success.
Bolstered by the most eye-catching signing by an Italian team since Inter Milan signed the Brazilian Ronaldo in 1998, Juventus should cement its grip on Serie A. After the most enthralling title race in years last season, it is hard to envisage a sustained challenge over the coming months. As Lazio’s Ciro Immobile, the league’s leading scorer last season, put it: “It’s lucky I topped the scoring charts in time.”
That, though, is not how most of Italy sees it. “It adds more salt and pepper,” said Aurelio De Laurentiis, the president of Napoli, the team that finished a close second to Juventus last season. James Pallotta, the owner of Roma, has described Ronaldo’s arrival as “positive for Serie A;” he insisted that he did not see it as something negative for his club, a putative challenger, at all.
There is a pride, of course, almost a validation, in having the reigning world player of the year choose Serie A. Not since 1995, when Hristo Stoitchkov left Barcelona for Parma, has the holder of the Ballon D’Or moved to Italy. And there is a hope, too, that Ronaldo’s decision might prove a harbinger of a return to a halcyon age.
But the excitement is not only rooted in nostalgia and yearning, in intangible emotion and rootless hope: there is a sense of economic opportunity, too. As Christoph Winterling, the commercial and marketing director at Bologna, said, for Serie A, “Ronaldo is a game-changer.”
Some of his impact, for the rest of the league, is short term, and obvious. Just as in France, where Neymar’s Paris St.-Germain regularly packs stadiums on the road, clubs like Chievo expect Ronaldo’s presence to sell more tickets, and at higher prices. “Teams can sell virtual advertising for those games as well, especially outside of Italy, because there will be a big interest in games against Juventus,” Winterling said.
It is the more lasting effect, however, that could be more significant. As Winterling put it, the mere presence of Ronaldo “lends trust” to Serie A: from fans who assume that if it is worth Ronaldo’s time, it is worth theirs, and from players who are more likely to be tempted to Italy if they know a player of his magnitude is there. “It is a chance to rebuild our credit on an international level,” said Stefano Campoccia, the vice president of Udinese.
If that sounds like an intangible, unquantifiable gauge, it is not: it can have a direct financial impact on Italian soccer’s health.
Though Serie A sold its domestic television rights for the next three years before Ronaldo’s move was announced — “It was agreed a week before the news,” said Campoccia, a little mournfully — a clause in the contract dictates that the league’s 20 clubs could earn an extra €150 million a year (about $170 million) if Sky Italia, its principal broadcaster, attracts a set amount of new subscribers.
Internationally, Ronaldo is likely to be even more important. Serie A hopes to attract a title sponsor for its overseas rights in the coming months; his brand is powerful enough to help.
In August, meanwhile, ESPN agreed to air more than 300 Serie A games this season in the United States, starting with Juventus at Chievo tomorrow, an occasion the network has been hyping across its channels for weeks. It was a major strategic victory for the league. “It was a crucial part of the plan that we found a broadcast partner that had the reach to increase the fan base,” said Campoccia, his club’s television rights specialist.
The aim by 2021, when the next set of rights tenders come to market, is to have a “product that is much more internationally appetizing,” according to Campoccia. A league-specific channel is already under discussion (Juventus, this summer, launched its own worldwide streaming service).
Featuring Ronaldo goes a long way to fulfilling that ambition, of course, but the rest of the league has a role to play, too. “We expect a rise in the technical level, as clubs commit greater investments than those of other leagues,” Campoccia said. This summer has been encouraging in that sense: A.C. Milan now boasts Gonzalo Higuaín, the Argentina striker made available by Juventus in a bid to reduce its salary bill, as a direct consequence of Ronaldo’s arrival; Inter had hoped to tempt Luka Modric, another of Real’s crown jewels, to Italy in an attempt to keep pace.
“That market activity helps raise the level not just in Serie A, but improve our performances in Europe,” Winterling said. “That helps with future television deals, but the other major advantage is that Italy is open to international investors: better performances increases the league’s attractiveness.”
There are several already — Bologna, like Roma and Milan, is in American hands; Inter and Parma are backed by Chinese owners — but Winterling believes more will come, a modernizing force for a league mired for too long in stasis. “International investors would bring a different mentality, more professionalism,” he said.
Nobody is under any illusion that Ronaldo is a panacea for all of Italian soccer’s ills. Winterling highlights the “lack of infrastructure,” and the absence of a professional management structure overseeing Serie A. Campoccia, too, suggested that “there must be efficient renovation of our stadiums in the next three years, to make the league attractive audio-visually.”
What Ronaldo may be is a spur to kick-start — at last — all those changes that have been so necessary for so long. Fresh investment, and fresh ideas, may follow in his wake, helping to close the gap with England’s Premier League, to recapture a little of Serie A’s golden age. Even Ronaldo cannot restore an entire league’s prestige all by himself. He could, though, be the start of something, the man to make Serie A feel as if it has a worldwide significance once again.