The Perceived “Quality” of Italian Football and The Player Drain

The Perceived “Quality” of Italian Football and The Player Drain

Following on from last week’s opening article in our detailed look at the issues facing Serie A, this week we turn our attention to the perception of Italian football, how it is viewed around the globe and also examine the impact of the exodus of top stars from Serie A.

1. Serie A’s International Appeal

In 2013, the Premier League renegotiated its TV deal and part of that deal was the International Rights. Last time around, in 2010, the Premier League raised £1.4 billion from TV Rights sales to international companies alone, this time around, that figure is set to top £2 billion.

How strong is the attraction of the Premier League internationally? Well take Burma as a great example, a country where the average worker, according to this Nick Harris report in the Daily Mail, earns £819 a year, has just increased its TV contract to show the Premier League from £200,000 over three years, to £25,000,000 over the same period.

All in all, the Premier League will sell its rights to well over 100 countries and geographic areas around the globe to a wide variety of television providers, each desperate to secure sole rights to showing the games in their locality.

That success can only be driven by a desire for the product in these regions. Yet many people have argued over the past 30 years, if not longer, that the standard of football in Serie A is at least as good, if not better than in the Premier League.

Surely a league boasting such famous names as Juventus, Inter, AC Milan, Roma, Lazio and Napoli has an equal attraction around the globe as the Premier League?

In truth, no it doesn’t. Not even close. In 2010, Serie A sold it’s International TV Rights for the 2010-11, 2011-12 seasons in one block to sports media firm MP & Silva, who paid £181.5m.

Even if the new TV Deal, the full details of which are still to be disclosed, includes a much greater payment from International Rights, it is unlikely to come close to the £2bn+ that Premier League teams will earn.

So the question Serie A teams must be asking, is why is their product not as attractive to other football fans around the globe, compared to the likes of the Premier League?

Some people will argue that Italian sides don’t exploit their marketing and commercial opportunities in these emerging markets as well as Premier League teams, or come up with other financial-related reasons as to why Serie A is a second-class citizen in terms of International TV rights.

But the fact of the matter remains that in terms of perception at least, Serie A isn’t as exciting or enjoyable to watch as the Premier League and fans abroad are not as invested in Serie A sides as they are their Premier League counterparts.

Yet once again, the facts don’t necessarily support this view; Serie A is averaging 2.69 goals per game this season, that is actually a fraction better than the Premier League at 2.68 and Ligue 1 at 2.43 goals per game. However all three leagues see considerably fewer goals per game on average than La Liga (Spain) at 2.83 and the Bundesliga at 3.17 goals per game. (Source)

So the notion that Serie A is all about defensive football and narrow 1-0 victories, which perhaps was the case in the 70s 80s and into the 90s, certainly doesn’t seem to be the case. You are as likely to see as many goals in a Serie A game as you are a Premier League game each weekend.

Another reason could be that Serie A teams just have not exploited their potential abroad. Yet once again, this doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny. Of all the Premier League teams, perhaps only Manchester United can be said to be fully realising their global brand name (£153m of the £363m the club made in the year 2012-2013 came from Commercial Revenue), with Manchester City (£143m), Liverpool (£97.7m), Chelsea (£83.9m) and Arsenal (£62.4m) trailing behind.

Yet in 2013, Deloitte reported  that Juventus earned around £58.6m in commercial revenue, while AC Milan earned £82.4m and Inter Milan £58.2m.

These commercial revenue amounts of the top Serie A sides are comparable with earning from most of the top Premier League sides, although pale against what the big two in Spain, Barcelona (£151.5m) and Real Madrid (£181.3m), plus Bundesliga giants Bayern Munich (£203.2m) and Ligue One Paris St Germain (£218.3m) earn.

So, while Serie A’s top sides may lack commercial and market appeal of say, Barcelona, Manchester United or Bayern Munich, they are certainly comparable with the likes of Chelsea, Arsenal, Schalke 04, Borussia Dortmund or similar.

Given the absence of clear facts to document why Serie A lacks international appeal, one can only presume that fans turn off Serie A for other reasons and perhaps one of them could be the style of football on show.

Whether it is a cliché or not is debatable, but Italian football always has a tendency to be thought of as less exciting, less fast-paced, less action-packed but more cerebral and technical than the game in England and (to a lesser extent) Spain and Germany.

This oft repeated mantra may have its roots in fact, or not, but it certainly could well be one of the key reasons why Serie A’s international appeal isn’t the same as the Premier League.

However, a more plausible reason could be that Serie A just does not attract enough of the top stars in the world game to appeal to fans from all over the world.

2. The Serie A Star Player Exodus

Back in the 1970s and throughout the 80s and into the 90s, Serie A was generally considered to be by far the wealthiest, most competitive and strongest league competition in the world. It was a league where the world’s best plied their trade on a weekly basis.

In the 1980s and 90s alone, almost all the world’s most celebrated stars were regulars for Serie A teams, both natives of Italy and from around the globe.

In the 1980s players like Michel Platini, Zbigniew Boniek, Dino Zoff, Falcao, Zico, Ian Rush, Liam Brady, Paolo Rossi, Careca and Diego Maradona were all lying their trade in Serie A

They were followed by a new generation in the 90s, such as the Dutch triumvirate at AC Milan, Gullit, Rikjaard and Van Basten, Klinsmann, Brehme and Matthaus at Inter Milan, The list of top players just kept being added to each year, Gascoigne, Signori, Baggio, Vialli, Zola, Zidane, Boban, Savicevic, Platt, Asprilla, Boksic and many more.

However, the emergence of the Premier League and the adoption of the “Galactico” policy at Real Madrid, combined with an emerging force in German football with the likes of Bayern Munich, Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Dortmund soon began to disseminate most of the talent across Europe, rather than focusing solely on Serie A.

By the end of the 90s, Europe’s top clubs in the top leagues were now able to match terms of even the best Serie A clubs and in some cases surpass them.

At one time, transfer of players from Italy to England was almost unheard of, with only the best English talent making its way to Serie A. Yet the Premier League suddenly saw itself blessed with some outstanding Italian talent, Di Matteo, Panucci, Vialli and Zola at Chelsea.

Furthermore, top talent from other countries was now choosing La Liga, the Bundesliga or the Premier League over Serie A.

The net effect of this was that only the best Serie A teams could still attract top players and even these teams would struggle to match the terms and pay offered by other clubs around Europe.

It is interesting to note how this now manifests itself. Last summer, AC Milan made two huge signings, Kaka and Mario Balotelli. Kaka was on a free transfer from Real Madrid after his spell at the Spanish giants came to an end somewhat miserably. Balotelli came from Manchester City, when he was deemed surplus to requirements.

In essence, instead of AC Milan dictating who they would buy, it was now the selling club, in this case Real Madrid or Manchester City, which agreed to let players they did not want any more, to join Milan.

It wasn’t just Milan either, Juventus snapped up Carlos Tevez, also from Manchester City, but only because City had lined up Alvaro Negredo to play up front alongside Edin Dzeko and Sergio Aguero. Tevez was sold, not because Juventus wanted him, but because City decided they wanted to sell.

Although it may seem a minor point, this is in fact a huge difference. Serie A teams now no longer call the shots on the world’s biggest transfers. Arguably, only Real Madrid, Barcelona (and perhaps Manchester United, Chelsea, Manchester City, Paris St Germain and Bayern Munich) have the capability to break the current record by signing any player they like.

This means Serie A has become the league where players who haven’t quite made it in other top European leagues, like  Alberto Aquilani, Mario Balotelli, Kaka, Carlos Tevez etc, come to play.

The knock on effect of this is that foreign customers are not willing to watch a league they feel isn’t as entertaining as other top leagues and which only features players that are not quite of the same standard as players at other top teams across Europe.

As long as the player drain continues and as long as Italian football maintains its somewhat unfair reputation as being dour, clinical, tactical and efficient, but not exciting, then it will always struggle to convince a world population that it has a viable alternative to the likes of the Bundesliga, La Liga and most of all, the Premier League.