Saturday, August 1, 2015

AS Roma stirs a shot of American know-how into Italy's grand soccer tradition

On Saturday, two of Italy's most famous soccer teams will meet at Lincoln Financial Field. AS Roma and Inter Milan have long been among Serie A's powerhouses, and in doing so have been global representatives for two of the world's great cities.

AS Roma stirs a shot of American know-how into Italy's grand soccer tradition

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AS Roma CEO Italo Zanzi. (Paolo Bruno/Getty Images file photo)
AS Roma CEO Italo Zanzi. (Paolo Bruno/Getty Images file photo)

On Saturday, two of Italy's most famous soccer teams will meet at Lincoln Financial Field. AS Roma and Inter Milan have long been among Serie A's powerhouses, and in doing so have been global representatives for two of the world's great cities. 

Even if you only follow Serie A on occasion, you surely know that the league is steeped in tradition and history. You've seen the grand old stadiums, such as the Olimpico in Rome and the San Siro in Milan, and the passionate Ultras that produce of European soccer's most vivid imagery. 

If you follow the league closely, you know that the sense of tradition extends beyond the field of play. Many clubs have been owned by the same families and groups for decades, and even generations, with close ties to the clubs' home cities. 

Roma was one of those teams, until four years ago. In 2011, something unprecedented happened to the giallorossi: not only were they sold, but they were sold to a group of Americans led by James Pallotta and Thomas DiBenedetto (who later sold his stake to Pallotta). They became the first foreign owners of a Serie A club in Italy's entire soccer history. 

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Since the purchase, Pallotta's team has worked to blend the best parts of America's business and marketing culture with the best parts of Italy's soccer culture. It's no coincidence that Roma is touring the U.S. for the third straight summer - including last year's Major League Soccer's All-Star Game. 

Just as important, though, was the club's second-place finish in Serie A last season. As Roma's Americans have tried to show Italy how soccer can be a business, it certainly has helped to succeed at the business of results on the field. 

It did not hurt either that they played some terrifically entertaining soccer in the 2013-14 campaign, blending veterans like Francesco Totti and up-and-comers like Miralem Pjanić. The reward was a return to the UEFA Champions League for the first time since 2011. 

What has been Roma's recipe for success? I recently got an exclusive interview with another American in the board room, CEO Italo Zanzi. The New York native offered some interesting insights on matters on and off the field, including how the club sees its potential for growth in the United States. 

So how does a New Yorker become the CEO of one of Italy's most famous soccer teams?

Haha. Well, the opportunity is really based on the American ownership's acquisition of Roma. So that was a very unique thing, and shortly after the acquisition, they moved to put together a management team to run the operation. They did a search through an executive recruiting firm, and I was identified.

I'd like to think that my background at that point matched what they were looking for. Not only did I come from a soccer background - I played in college at the University of Chicago and then I was a graduate assistant coach while I did law school and business school in Atlanta. So I understand the sport.

Ironically, I thought my soccer career was over - which it was - and I thought my athletic career was over, but I was recruited to play on the U.S. national handball team. So I spent close to 10 years moonlighting during my school and my work, representing my country for the handball team. Which isn't soccer, but is nonetheless an international sport.

Then I had many years working within the international sports marketplace, first at Major League Baseball, then CONCACAF, and several other projects like the America's Cup. So while I hadn't worked specifically in Italy, the kinds of things that we're doing now are tied very closely to what I had done in the past.

And I'd like to think also that I have a healthy desire for new challenges and new opportunities. We're really building something that is new and hasn't been done before, which is exciting. 

The story of how James Pallotta took over AS Roma has been told before in the media, but from your perspective, how did you see it all come together?

He was part of a group that was looking to take over the operational management of Roma, in addition to a majority equity position. After being involved on a more passive level, an opportunity came for him to take a lead role in that.

He very quickly decided to to that, and in doing so, recognized that there was a huge opportunity to take over one storied franchise that had been going through some really substantial challenges and problems, but with some capital, with some vision and the right management, there was the opportunity to at least elevate it back to where it was, if not to bigger places.

So Jim made a substantial commitment personally, as did his partners, and quickly moved to put together an infrastructure to grow the team. 

I would imagine, from knowing what I do about Serie A - and I suspect this also applies for a lot of American fans of Italian soccer - that when you look at the big clubs from afar, one of the things that stands out is how many of them have been owned by the same people or families not just for years, but for generations.

I think of the Agnellis with Juventus and Silvio Berlusconi with AC Milan in particular. And Roma was held by the Sensi family, first Franco then Rosella, for 18 years. 

Now here comes James Pallotta, who's not just a new guy in a room, but an American to boot. So I wonder what it has been like for you all to try to bring some influences into the culture of Italian soccer ownership that maybe haven't been there before.

A lot of the reaction - especially from the fans - is going to be by definition tied to results. When we got there, the team had not been performing well. The season before last, we didn't perform particularly well, but the most difficult part was that we lost the Coppa Italia final to Lazio, our crosstown rival. And that sent the city into depression.

At least half of it, I'd imagine.

More than half of it. If you look at the demographics of where people live, Roma is really the team of the city.1

It was really a tough time for our fans. On May 26, we lost that game. That night we went to work, and I think people slowly but surely recognized that we were taking a different approach, not only in terms of the strategy, but the work ethic that is associated with trying to turn a club around that quickly.

We made some very bold decisions that may not have been popular initially, where we moved some players.We did that understanding that it wasn't about making sure that we were the most popular in the newspaper the next day, but to make sure the team had the most opportunity to win. And we succeeded in that. We really focused on the fundamentals, which are winning on the field and off the field.

That being said, especially initially, there was, I think, some healthy skepticism about what Americans could do in football in Italy. I think the philosophy of the club - which has been best practices and best people, not necessarily Americans, but let's find the best way to do things, has resonated.

We have what we believe is the best sporting director in Italy, Europe and the world in Walter Sabbatini, who's very much Italian. Our head coach Luis García, who we think is the best around, is French. Our management is a combination of Americans and Italians. So we don't look at it as an American project. We look at it as a serious football and business project that happens to have American ownership.

That being said, we've learned a lot from, I'd say, the American marketing practices in sport that perhaps weren't or aren't as prevalent in some parts of Europe and Italy. When we look at, for instance, the league dynamics in Italy, we are the main proponent of taking collective action, and often that's very hard to get across, because that's not something that has been inherently within the system.

If you look at the success of leagues around the world like the NBA and the English Premier League, it's generally based on a collective and positive action between the owners. There's nothing wrong with being fierce rivals on the field every weekend, but off the field we're a league and an industry, and we have to work together.

On that piece of it, we've tried to be innovators within the system, which isn't easy, because European football isn't generally looking for change, even though it needs it.

1 - Zanzi is right about this. Lazio's fans are based more in Rome's suburbs, including the one for which the club is named.

2 - Roma moved out 15 players during that summer transfer window, most notably defender Marquinhos and goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg.

You mentioned how you were received by the fans. In the board room and the hallways of the Italian federation, what was that like? You are dealing with people who, again, even if they are open to anyone of any nationality coming in, I would imagine that if you have the same people in the same room for a long time making all of the decisions, it might not be easy for someone to come in and try to institute changes to the system.

It's not easy, but that doesn't mean that it's not worthwhile. We're very aggressive and outspoken, but respectful. In a strong way, we think that some things need to change and to be adapted.

Yeah, there are times when we are the only hand in the room saying, “Guys, what's going on here? There's probably a better way.” And it can be frustrating at times. But we're seeing that little by little, we're getting traction.

There are some new owners who I think will bring some new ideas, there are some teams that have some new management and are also looking to improve. The reality is that when you look at the upside versus where we've come from recently, I think it makes sense for people to re-evaluate and see that while it's a terrific football league, there's always ways to improve to improve.

It's not easy, but we're going to continue to fight to make sure we improve Italian football as much as possible.

You also mentioned earlier some of the player personnel moves that the club made that have been controversial, but you still have two titans of the club and the Italian national team in Francesco Totti and Daniele De Rossi. Both are well known in America, of course, but tell us from your side of things how important they are for Roma.

They are the pillars of our club, candidly. Francesco's tenure with Roma, I think, is as successful a career as there has been for a major athlete. The way he carries himself on the field in terms of his continued success, and off the field as a consistent leader, is fantastic.

For us, it's an honor every day to have him with us, and he makes the club better every day. We were really happy to be able to re-sign him this past year, both for his playing career and also to extend his relationship with the club whenever he decides to move on. He is the anchor of our club.

Daniele, in the same light, is a tremendous leader on and off the field for us, and a tremendous player. He is continuing to excel for Italy, and he brings, in a different position, a level of stability and leadership and vision that keeps a consistency within the club.

Even though the reality in international football is that other players will, bey definition, rotate in and out, our goal is to maintain consistency and continuity. So having those two guys as pillars, who are rightfully by loved the community, that gives us the flexibility of trying to build around them, which we've done.

The majority of the players that we have on our team, we believe will be there for a long time. One of our priorities was to make sure we re-signed our coach, Rudi García, to a long-term agreement. As we look at success in football, one of the things that I think challenges a lot of teams is having immense turnover, both on the management and on-field levels.

We want to create as much continuity as possible, and frankly, from a technical and tactical standpoint, the longer players play together, the better they are going to get. As much success as we had this past season, we had it largely with a team where many of the players had never played together before. Some of the other teams in the league had a higher percentage of their starters or regular players playing together for longer. That makes us even more optimistic for this season.

I go back to continuity. We want to have consistency in our coaches, our management and our players.

One of the biggest changes you are in the process of making at Roma is building the team a new stadium that the club will own. Many Italian teams play in venues that are owned by a local council or some kind of government entity, and that has been the case for a long time.

Juventus was the first to break away from that, opening its own stadium in 2011. Now you guys are going to do the same. In March, you announced plans to build the 60,000-seat Stadio della Roma. You aim to start construction later this year, with a targeted opening in August of 2016.

That said, your current and longtime home is one of Italy's most famous stadiums, the Stadio Olimpico. Even though the venue has its drawbacks, its history is such that your leaving there will cary a lot of emotional resonance.

What has it been like going through the the move, and how important is it to own your own stadium?

It's immensely important for a lot of reasons. We consider it really an entertainment complex anchored by a football stadium. The reality is that this project will be more than a football stadium. It will no doubt help our team from a competitive standpoint. It will be fantastic for our fans, in order to have a fantastic environment in which to support their team.

As you mentioned the Olympic Stadium is a tremendous arena with great history, but there are certain things about it that are challenging for fans, whether it's the track around the field, or the sight lines, or the slope of the stands.

We believe that with a new arena, our fans and anybody visiting are going to have the best football experience possible. Broader than that, we think it's going to be a fantastic lift for the city, from not only a football standpoint but from an entertainment standpoint.

We're building the facility in a very responsible way to make sure that it's economically sustainable, by bringing in hundreds of events a year, having really compelling, experiential retail, and other activities that will bring people there consistently. It will really provide an economic, promotional and emotional boost to the city and the country, which both deserve it.

Are we going to see more Italian teams owning their own stadiums? As we've discussed, it's not something that has happened historically. But I would imagine that it obviously makes a big difference to the bank balance, not just to the atmosphere.

First of all, we would really like to see it happen. Going back to this philosophy of collective action and working as an industry, for us it would be terrific if every team in Italy could develop its own stadium. We applaud Juve for what they've done, and we'll certainly support any other team that has a similar vision.

I think that there is now definitely a recognition in Italy that the stadia are probably out-dated for most teams. That impacts their bottom line, that impacts fan experience, that impacts security.

I think as we get some new ownership in, as we get some greater support from the government - which we've seen already, as they've passed a pretty substantial stadium financing law which will make it easier to go through the procedures necessary to vet the possibility of building a new stadium - that those things are realistic.

There are some clubs that are taking some substantial steps. Udinese is doing a pretty comprehensive reconstruction of their stadium. I wouldn't say it's a new building, but it will be substantially transformative. I know there are some other projects that are being talked about. I think we have to help those teams through the process.

Our success, I believe, will also bring more investment into Italian football - which again, we're happy about. We think that that the league, the industry and the country have so much upside, that if we can be a leader and an example for others, everybody will be better off.

One of the things that I have learned in writing about the business of soccer is that it's clear that many people in North America, especially in the U.S. and Canada, have a strong appreciation and understanding of the role of business in sports. Over here we see sports as being a business, indeed an industry, and not just a communal cultural entity.

It's clear that Roma's front office has that perspective as well, but it's not so common in Italy and elsewhere in Europe. What has it been like for you in dealing with those differences in dynamics?

Well, it's changing. I think particularly coming out of the leagues in England and Germany, there is much more of a focus on off-the-field matters, whether it be commercial, financial, or as it relates to player movements. As Financial Fair Play gets rolled out, certainly it becomes a much more relevant piece of the on-field activities.

But ultimately, I go back to the notion that fans will want sustainable success for their teams. Sustainable success comes with having certainly a top-notch football operation, but if you don't have an equally successful administrative and commercial plan, the football side won't be sustainable, and vice-versa.

So they're really linked. And while we don't go out and bang the drum every day, I think they understand, and we do stress it when it's appropriate. The reality is fans, appropriately, want to win, but to allow us to have the best chance to win, we need to be strong in every area.

I think little by little, fans are starting to understand that - particularly when you see so many teams that are teetering on the serious risk of peril. And Roma felt that before the U.S. acquisition. So fans are starting to understand, okay, it's not just did we win on Sunday, but what's the health of my team, who can I bring in, how are things being managed. We believe we have earned, gradually, the confidence of our fans, and we hope to continue to prove ourselves right.

So now let's finally talk about Roma's trip to the United States. I know the club has been interested in trying to plant its flag in the U.S., which has gone crazy for soccer in recent years as everyone has seen. What do you think Roma can accomplish here?

It's a really important market for us on all levels. We obviously are committed to growing our fan base, not only in the short term but in the long term, and the U.S. is a key growth market. We have a natural connection to it through our ownership and our management.

There is a commercial component to it, where we believe that both through traditional corporate sponsorship and marketing, and through grassroots efforts, we can grow our revenue and our fan base. The best way to do that is to show up. So when we come three years in a row to the U.S., we believe we're leaving a legacy of a brand, of terrific experiences, and most importantly of a desire to continue to follow our team.

The difference this year from last year and the year before is that we gradually improved our infrastructure from a media standpoint. We've invested a lot of time, effort and resources into our digital media plan. We're just kicking off a long-term agreement with Nike, and we're continuing to expand our agreement with Disney.1

So all of these really unique and aggressive initiatives support the matches that we play here, which become positive flashpoints for the Roma experiences. We think there's a really captive audience for it.

We don't think that necessarily every fan of Roma is going to only follow Roma. We're very comfortable with a fan in any particular city in the United States having an allegiance to their MLS team and going to watch those games every week - in fact, we'd love that. But as it relates to Italy and to Europe, we want to be as relevant as possible within the U.S.

We have a great relationship with MLS and we'll continue to grow that, and with many of the teams. So we feel like we're well-situated to be a really impactful force in a positive way within the U.S.

1 - The deal includes Roma visiting the Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando each year for a week of training sessions.

It's interesting that you say you're very comfortable with having fans in the U.S. who root for Roma and are just as invested in their local MLS club. I get the impression, based on what I've seen from other European clubs and leagues that market here that not everyone shares your perspective.

There seem to be other entities, especially from England, that present themselves as having a financial self-interest in keeping MLS in a permanent second-tier status. You come across as being much more comfortable with having the two parts be more equal.

We view MLS as allies. We have a really strong personal relationship with their leadership and with many their clubs. We've already had some player dealings with them [link to Michael Bradley], we played in their All-Star game last year, we've got a whole bunch of things that we're talking about with them on player exchanges, coaching exchanges.1

They can help us and we can help them. It's all additive. We don't consider them competition, we just consider it a very friendly way to grow football in the United States, and help grow Roma's presence here.

1 - Since I know you're wondering: no, I did not get any details of what those future player exchanges might be.

Would it help to have an American player on the squad?

Sure. It obviously builds relevance. We're always mindful of options and alternatives. We've had several discussions, and we'll continue to work with MLS not only on players that can come from the U.S. to Italy, but also players that can come from Italy to the U.S. It's one of those mutually beneficial relationships that can have a lot of different positive outcomes in the short and long terms.

I know that you aren't necessarily too deeply involved in player personnel matters, but in talking about you guys scouting MLS for signings, I'd like to get your perspective on something that's a big talking point over here.

There's a widely-held perception in the U.S. that American players are under-valued on the international market because they're American, and not for any other reason. Do you think that is a fair view for people to have?

I would say that first of all, American players have a practical challenge in leaving the United States, based on some of the regulations relating to work authorizations and permits. So it's not as simple as saying, is this player good enough to play in league A, B, C or D in Europe.

Those teams all have, like we do, very tight restrictions on non-European Union players. So that's a challenge that faces American players trying to go abroad all the time.

A lot of it, also, is frankly visibility. I think MLS has done a terrific job getting itself getting visibility within the U.S. They have a great new television deal. And I know they are aggressively trying to grow their visibility outside the United States. 

The reality is, though, it's hard when you're competing when you're competing against leagues that have been around for so long. The reality is that many of the American players don't necessarily get the visibility from foreign teams as much as they should because their league just isn't as watched outside of the U.S.

The term you used is under-valued. There's bad news with that and there's good news with that. The bad news is that maybe they're not attracting the level of investment that somebody would want. The good news is that their real value is much higher.

So it's a growing process, I think, both for the system and for the players. This isn't only, by the way, as it relates to players that leave the U.S. and go to Europe, but it's also between teams within the same country or the same league. It's about environment.

A player that may play at a certain level in one system with one coach in one country, if they're given an opportunity within another, they may do much better. Sometimes not. But those are the kinds of environments that I think we want to maximize a player's opportunity to play in. We're trying to help that. Again, it's harder from a practical perspective, but it's something that we're working towards.

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