The Americanization of Serie A

With the American owners of Roma choosing to part ways with Mourinho on Tuesday following Roma's back to back loss with rivals Lazio in the Coppa Italia last week and losing again to Milan in the league on Sunday, the football world was once again surprised at the sudden sacking of such an important football legend. Fabio Capello was perhaps the first to point out the connection between the sacking of Mourinho and Cardinale's sacking of Maldini, calling out the American owners for their disrespectful treatment of two footballing legends. To be fair, unlike Milan's case, Roma did have grounds to sack Mourinho, given his multiple suspensions for abuse of referees and the fact that Roma sit in ninth place, well out of a European spot on the table. However, his dismissal was very abrupt and unexpected, after reported unanswered communications from management, similar to what happened with Maldini. But that is all part of the Americanization of Serie A.

Paul Singer, Gerry Cardinale, and Gordon Singer, Milan's American owners past and present.

Capello spoke with authority, having managed both clubs after also playing for Milan. He understands the history and culture of both clubs, and knows many of the people who built both that history and culture. While many Italians looked to American owners as some type of saviors or miracle workers, Roma are on their second American ownership in 13 years, and the club is in worse shape for it. Mourinho bringing them the inaugural UEFA Conference League trophy is the only hardware they have won since the influx of U.S. money, despite such excessive spending vs. income that they are under FFP restrictions from UEFA. And after those 13 years, they still have no new stadium, either. They also brought in their club's legend and bandiera, Totti, as a director under the Pallotta era, but he left, feeling disrespected, after realizing that he was a director in name only, and had no actual authority. (This was the same reason Maldini refused to return to Milan under the Yonghong Li ownership.)

Mourinho gave Roma their only trophy in more than a decade.

Milan are on the fast track to follow in Roma's footsteps, as Cardinale is the second American owner after Elliott Management. In contrast, however, Elliott not only convinced Maldini to return, but put him mostly in charge of the sporting sector, which saw Milan return to the Champions League and even to a semifinal this past year under his guidance. Milan also won a Scudetto, all within the five years he spent as a director, having taken them from finishing between sixth and tenth in the league all the way to the top again. He also lowered the wage bill and increased the value of the team by bringing in a balance of experience and young talent and personally mentoring the players, building the core group of top players we have now. The income from European sporting success under his direction was responsible for Milan's first profit in 17 years. Elliott knew that by bringing Maldini back, they could build back the Milan brand faster and more effectively, and despite being considered a horrible vulture fund, they understood and respected the fans better than anyone at Milan has in my lifetime. 

Their goal was not only to return Milan to its glory, which they accomplished, but also to build a stadium, as well as make money. Being perhaps wiser than Cardinale or either of Roma's ownerships, after five years of the most persistent efforts, they opted to pass the stadium project on and capitalize on the money-making part. Enter Cardinale and RedBird, also owners of the currently 14th place Toulouse FC in Ligue 1. Before he even purchased either club, Cardinale expressed a desire to "monetize the fans," with his interest in building a stadium being the staging area for his shakedown of Milan fans, whom he envisioned as a "captive audience" during games. His approach was a sharp contrast to Elliott's, not just disrespecting Maldini, but also putting Furlani in as CEO, someone with no experience in football, who replaced Gazidis, someone with over 30 years of experience in football. Furlani's legacy will always be getting Milan and footballing legend Paolo Maldini fired, something that will likely stain the name of even his children and grandchildren.

One of these men is not like the other. 

Maldini made reference to Cardinale's plans for his new stadium in his tell-all interview in December, plans which gratefully have not happened as of yet. Cardinale's purported plans are for a stadium of 55,000-60,000 seats, most of which would be corporate, and would leave very few seats for the general population. Maldini fought against this, arguing for a larger stadium, with more seats accessible to everyone. Given that the San Siro averaged over 70,000 in attendance per game last season, I find it odd that neither the media, the fans, not even the Curva Sud have picked up on this and questioned the American owner's intentions. Do they have any idea the harm this would do to generations of Milan fans to come? Why are the Curva Sud so obsessed with ticket prices at stadiums now, when there may not even be any remotely affordable seats for them in Cardinale's new stadium?

That assumes, obviously, that Cardinale gets a stadium built, which he has been just as unsuccessful, if not more unsuccessful as Elliott were before him. He has offended more people and come in with a stereotypical American 'both guns blazing' approach instead of trying to understand the language, culture, or people of the community he is trying to do business with. His vision for Milan's stadium is the epitome of the Americanization of Serie A. I wrote about Italy's challenges with building football infrastructure two years ago, but also how corporate greed has actually made it impossible for the average fan to attend sporting events here in the U.S. Italians have been clamoring for the American business model for years, but not only are they unwilling to give up their antiquated thinking, they do not realize what they are asking for when they want to emulate America. Their pipe dream has no room for all of the things that make Italian football unique – the passion, the coreografia, the amazing fans – none of which would exist in a stadium with primarily corporate boxes and seating.

Closer to a circus than a stadium.

The Americanization of Milan continues to go forward, however. Furlani has parroted Cardinale's talking point that the U.S. sports market is the largest, most profitable market in the world, and Milan wants a piece of it. Cardinale most notably resolved to bring in Captain America, Christian Pulisic, in the summer for his marketing capabilities, which he and Furlani have shamelessly admitted to on multiple occasions. That part of his plan worked perhaps beyond expectation, including having Pulisic voted by fans online to be Serie A Player of the Month in December. While jersey sales represent a tiny fraction of a club's actual operating budget, because most of the purchase price goes to the manufacturer, the number of Milan jerseys sold in the U.S. went from 9% to 45% of all jersey sales at the club. That meant an increase of Milan jersey sales in the U.S. of 713%, and an overall increase of 75% over all kit sales from the same time period last year. In his first month at the club, Pulisic jerseys accounted for nearly half of all kits purchased. 

While Pulisic shies away from this conversation and clearly does not enjoy being a pawn in Cardinale's profit-making scheme, as he prefers to focus on his football career, he was also responsible for an increase in ticket sales when Milan came to the U.S. Milan also signing his U.S. Men's National teammate Yunus Musah only added further interest from this side of the world. Although, having been at the Juve-Milan match in Los Angeles this summer, held at a stadium which seats 27,000, there were only a little over 18,000 fans there total. And I can attest that most of them were still Juventus fans. That was actually down a few thousand from the 21,700 fans five years ago, when there were even fewer Milan fans in a sea of Manchester United fans at the same venue. But I can also attest to the fact that there were dedicated Pulisic fans at this match, and he received the loudest applause by far when the teams were announced.

Pulisic gets his career back, Cardinale makes money, everyone wins.

That U.S. tour, which was so important to Cardinale that he commissioned a hot air balloon to advertise it here in Southern California for some bizarre reason, (are we sure RedBird is a Sports Marketing company? In this century?) may have also ironically been one of the biggest causes of Milan's injury apocalypse this year. The team left for the U.S. only 10 days into their preseason training, and it was an exhausting schedule involving long hours and long flights, which did not allow for adequate athletic preparation for the full season. I spoke with my physio friend David on the last podcast about the potential causes for such a sharp increase in injuries this year. 

While I have previously written about the psychological factors influencing injuries due to changes at the club, amongst other reasons, David pointed out that the lack of proper preseason preparation was the most likely variable, something other experts have discussed as well. Given that Real Madrid have also had a serious injury crisis this season, and they also traveled to the U.S. for the same tour, that is highly likely to be the case. (Barcelona and Juventus also traveled, but played one less match than Milan and Real Madrid, so may be less impacted by injuries due to a slightly less strenuous trip.)

Marketing ideas from 1899.

The cause of the injury crisis may never be able to be proven, but the irony that American greed and specifically Cardinale's quest to grow the U.S. fanbase might have cost us the Champions League, Coppa Italia, and our chance of winning the Scudetto is not lost on me. For an owner who knew nothing about football less than ten years ago, claims Italian heritage but cannot speak a word of the language, and did not even bother to learn about the European history of his €1.2 billion investment, I find it very peculiar that Italians have embraced him as some kind of deliverer of financial and sporting success. Again, that American business model they think they want is not what they think.

The Lega Serie A itself have also looked to America for growth. First, the technically horrible streaming service Paramount Plus won the broadcast rights for Serie A via their amateur and clownish coverage on the CBS Sports Golazo network. The pundits and lead commentator were originally just fans from social media who have talked incessantly about how much they have grown Serie A in the U.S., while simultaneously repelling fans new and old with their self-absorbed banter and really bad commentary. Despite having access to the excellent English commentary from IMG's World Feed (which they also use for many of the games because their team is not big enough to cover all of the matches,) they continue to destroy calcio with their unprofessional broadcasts. But hey, they bid the most money.

A conflict of interest, and some of the most unprofessional coverage of Serie A around.

I was told that the CBS crew also got the same people/friends of those people hired to do the official Serie A social media and website in English, amongst a disturbingly large number of growing American partnerships with the League. Americans who were already Serie A fans will defend them, because they know them from social media (The bar here is very, very low.) But that does not improve the quality of coverage. Of course, fans have no other legal way to access Serie A matches here, either. And Cardinale does not care whether or not we even have access to matches at all. Like Serie A, they are not concerned with quality, they just want our money.

As if that were not bad enough, Paramount Plus also sponsored Inter's kits this year. If Cardinale were even one-tenth the Sports Marketing genius he thinks he is, he would have shut that down, because all of these new Pulisic Milan fans should not have to watch Inter play with the name of our streaming service that we use to access all of our games (including Coppa Italia and Champions League) on their shirts. It is a huge conflict of interest, and one that the marketing giants of the Premier League shut down immediately when there was a similar deal offered to Chelsea there. And I just noticed that Serie A's coach of the month award is now sponsored by American made Philadelphia cheese, too. There have also been discussions to play official matches here in the U.S., much like the NFL and NBA now play a few matches in England and Europe.

The irony of Serie A complaining about piracy by using a dilapidated stadium is not lost on me.
(the income they claim to lose from piracy is a drop in the bucket compared to what they lose by not building new stadiums)

But for as much as Serie A is seeking money from the U.S., they have not solved some of the basic problems that prevent the Italian league from having greater financial success in the first place. In addition to the aforementioned nationwide phobia of building new stadiums, and the matchfixing, plusvalenze, and other scandals, Italy has a huge racism problem. Not only racism from the fans, but also those in charge, and even the toxic Italian media. America has a systemic racism problem, too, but corporate greed has kept racism to a much more marketable level in our professional sports leagues so that the leagues and owners actually do make money (and players suffer a lot less abuse.) The U.S. Men's team, who have never won football's highest honor, also went to the World Cup last time, which four-time winning Italy failed to do the last two times, in part due to their lack of investment in youth and infrastructure.

Cardinale may or may not have recognized the opportunity of his timing in pushing for growth of both Milan and football in the U.S market, as North America are hosting the next World Cup in two years. Although this could still backfire, like it did with Qatar last year. Many criticized and boycotted that World Cup because of human rights violations directly attributed to the World Cup itself, including deaths associated with building the stadiums for the tournament itself. Not to be outdone, the U.S., one of three of the nations hosting World Cup 2026, went all in on their already horrific foreign policies and could theoretically even face sanctions from the International Court of Justice. While this has nothing to do with the World Cup, it will likely cause similar criticism and boycotts all over the world for many reasons. In short, Cardinale's efforts in linking Milan to the American market may have negative repercussions in spite of short-term benefits.

Maldini worked for the transition of Serie A from old ideas to profitable modern football, without sacrificing culture.

But Italy do not seem to mind taking these kinds of risks. They have taken plenty of money from Saudi Arabia to host Supercoppa matches, even in the midst of human rights scandals. Morality is not the issue. The problem here is that you cannot have it both ways. Either you are all in on the Americanization of Serie A, and you give up everything unique to the league in search of profit by selling your collective soul, or you go back to putting your money under your mattress and arguing about TV rights and refusing to build stadiums, like Serie A has done for over 30 years now. (There definitely are things that could be improved in Italy.)

The amazing atmosphere in the stadiums, the passion of the fans, even the crazy things that happen off the pitch are all what make Serie A so appealing to so many people. Yet all of that would disappear if Serie A sold out and were truly Americanized. Worse still, the average fans would lose access to the games. While sometimes, two things can be true at one time, these two worlds just do not seem to be able to coexist together. The complete fallout from these American owners, their greedy policies, and disrespect for our clubs, legends, Italy, and the sport in general, remains to be seen. But I just don't see any light at the end of this frightening tunnel that is the Americanization of Serie A.

This post inspired by the music of Muse's "Dead Inside"

Our next match is 
Serie A Week 21
Udinese vs. Milan
Suaturday, January 20, 2024 • 20:45 CET (2:45pm EST)

The Americanization of Serie A The Americanization of Serie A Reviewed by Elaine on 11:00 PM Rating: 5
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