Breakaway League: Serie A and the Crisis in Italian Football

The Italian season opener, the Supercoppa Italiana (Italian Super Cup), between Serie A champions Internazionale and Italian Cup winners Lazio, is taking place abroad again at Beijing’s Olympic Stadium the Bird’s Nest. It’s a showy step in Italian football’s attempts to keep pace with the Premier League’s branded behemoths — and one that also includes a breakaway league reminiscent of England’s league transformation in the 1990s. Yet these flashy moves can’t hide the underlying crisis in Italian football.

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The Italian Super Cup has been played in Washington D.C., New Jersey and even Tripoli in the past, but the early kick-off and lack of Italian television coverage this time has led to criticism, such as this scathing commentary from Four Four Two’s Riccardo Rossi.

In fact, the Football League’s decision to move the game to China has not only penalised the genuine Inter and Lazio fans, but also taken the game out of the realm of an Italian sporting event.

The League may see their coffers swell by something in the region of 2.5million euro for the pleasure of Inter and Lazio having to trek across a few time zones to feather the Bird’s Nest stadium.

However, the spectacle will be played in front of a crowd that, in all honesty, will not be too concerned who they support as long as they get full value for their 21 euro entrance fee.

“We are exporting the ‘brand’,” pleaded the League in their defence, before demonstrating a total disregard for their core followers back home by pithily adding: “fans who are interested will find a way to watch the game.”

Serie A powerbrokers are unlikely to be concerned by these views, with their focus on the branding battle as a league worldwide with the Premier League and La Liga, one Italian clubs have been losing for the past decade. The increasingly poor performance of Italian clubs in the Champions League and UEFA Cup and in their status as global brands has led to a crisis of confidence and a dramatic attempt to kickstart the top flight. Five years ago, Italy boasted two of the top five clubs in Deloitte’s Football Money League; this year, the top five all came from England, Spain and Germany.

Lega Calcio Serie A

Exporting the global brand of Italian football isn’t the only way Serie A clubs are attempting to keep up with the Premier League. In April it was announced that, much like the Premier League in the 1990s, Serie A would break away from Serie B to form “Lega Calcio Serie A”. 19 of the 20 clubs in Serie A voted in favour of the move after negotiations with Serie B broke down, and the new league is scheduled to launch next year.

Lega Calcio Serie A will sell collective television rights for the 20 clubs. Currently, the top clubs manage their own rights, but do share revenue to support Serie B. The collective Serie A sale ought to assist well-managed upper-tier teams below the likes of Milan and Juventus such as Udinese, on the fringes of Champions League qualification and likely to be able to increase their revenue substantially, which may improve the pitiful recent performance of mid-tier Italian teams in the Europa League (formerly UEFA Cup).

Though they will no longer directly sell their own rights, the Italian Champions League elite will hope the new deal will kickstart the same rich-get-richer revolution the English game has felt since the launch of the Premier League. Clubs such as Roma and Lazio are on the market for new owners and/or new stadiums, and will see this as a shortcut to solving their problems — which may be a rather too simple assumption.

But for teams less secure in Serie A, as well as those stuck in Serie B and below, the break-away is only like to exacerbate the serious economic difficulties plaguing almost every club in Italy — similar to the effect on Football League clubs that the Premier League’s breakaway had in the 1990s, instantiating a greater inequality throughout the football pyramid.

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Serie B and Lega Pro

The Serie A break-away will surely only add to the serious financial crisis in lower league Italian football that has recently shredded several teams with history in the top flight; Serie B has struggled selling its television rights in the past two seasons, and it’s unlikely to get any easier now. A greater gap between the top clubs in Serie A and those below could be the final nail in the coffin for many, especially as the Italian lower league system has not been as firmly established as the Football League structure in England.

Indeed, economic crisis is already apparent in the division below Serie B, now known as Lega Pro. Four former Serie A clubs — Treviso, Venezia, Pisa and Avellino — have all dropped out of the third tier this summer due to economic difficulties, failing registration requirements. Out of Lega Pro’s two divisions (the third and fourth tiers of Italian football), no fewer than 16 teams failed the (too?) strict Covisoc financial criteria test.

Pisa, relegated from Serie B,  reportedly went bankrupt with 7 million Euros of debt and will have to start over at the amateur level.

If the Lega Calcio Serie A breakaway goes ahead, it’s surely only going to lead to more reckless spending by Serie B clubs in the scramble to be part of the jackpot television revenue one tier above them — something we’ve seen in England many times since the formation of the Premier League.  Serie B clubs may well spend more to try to reach the promised land above, even though this will mean risking their registration and relegation to amateur football should they end up failing in financial difficulty.

Fancy exhibitions at the Bird’s Nest and aping the Premier League’s breakaway and branding at the top won’t solve the deeper problems in Italian football.

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