Serie A presidents and executives met this week for their latest assembly with issues to discuss (and no doubt argue tirelessly over). Among them, a new elected advisor of the Lega is needed after Cagliari owner Tomasso Giulini had to resign following the Rossoblu’s relegation last season.
Other issues include taxes and the reform of the upper echelons of the Italian game, including Serie A. “We as Serie A work on the problems of our league and how it intersects with problems of other leagues,” said Lega president Lorenzo Casini. “There will be a reform commission, and by the middle of December there will be a proposal to present [to the FIGC].”
And it’s this last issue that has been the prickliest of issues between the clubs in Serie A for years. The theme of reform, of reducing Serie A back to 18 teams has been in talks for years, but any discussions brought forward by Casini’s predecessors, from Paolo dal Pino to Giancarlo Abete via Carlo Tavecchio and Maurizio Beretta, has been shot down by many of the clubs in the top flight.
The 2003/04 season was the last of the old 18-team league, which had been in place since 1988, and the format, which saw four teams relegated and four teams promoted from Serie B, worked perfectly. For the most part, there was quality up and down the league and not many promoted sides were completely out of their depth from the get-go (Brescia in 1994/95 and Ancona in 03/04 the notable exceptions).
Good sides got sucked into a relegation fight (Inter in 1993/94, despite winning the UEFA Cup, survived by a single point) and teams eventually succumb to a bad run of form at the wrong time and go down (Fiorentina in 1992/93, which ludicrously included Gabriel Batistuta, Stefan Effenberg, Brian Laudrup and Dunga). The system worked perfectly and didn’t need tinkering, but of course they did anyway.
With the rise and rise of TV money early in the 2000s, the decision was made to expand to 20 clubs. More games meant more money, went the reasoning. The first season, 2004/05, was arguably the best of the 20-team era. Only six points separated relegated Bologna, who finished the season on a ridiculous 42 points in 18th — but lost in a relegation playoff against Parma — from seventh placed Messina.
But the league’s decision to expand coincided with the marked drop in quality of Serie A in the mid-00s. Italy had begun to fall behind the Premier
Calciopoli, of course, had also done a lot of the damage to the league’s reputation, but Italy had hardly helped itself by wasting the hundreds of millions of euros on players and wages, rather than focusing on infrastructure and building new stadiums.
In the subsequent years, the overall state of Serie A has declined drastically, and thus the valuation of TV deals reducing with each passing three-year cycle. This has meant less money for clubs at the bottom end of the table, which has the knock-on effect of producing a horrible spectacle. Average players playing in crumbling, concrete monstrosities built decades ago that does little to draw in the neutral. A vicious cycle that can’t be broken, or rather there isn’t the will to break it.
According to the latest data from Calcio e Finanza, the average attendance for Serie A games this season, at this stage, has been an impressive 28,884. Yet Milan and Inter are carrying the majority of the burden here, with the Milanese duo selling out, or coming close, to all of their league games. The pair have averaged 72,000 per-game in 2022/23. Even Spezia, who have the smallest stadium in the division, are averaging over 8,000 per-match in what is a 11k arena.
Yet the real eye-catcher is in the TV ratings. Naturally, the big three command the biggest audience, with Juventus in the lead with an average of 1.2m viewers per-game. Spezia, at the other end of the scale, attract around 250,000 viewers per-game, and in some cases even less than that. Their game against Empoli in August saw only 6,600 people tune in. Moreover, in the top 10 least watched matches of the season, Spezia feature five times.
The argument has always been from Serie A presidents that less matches mean less money from TV companies, and thus always voting against reducing the league to 18 teams. Yet what many of those with voting power within the league fail to grasp is that less is often more, and more doesn’t always mean more. Viewing figures for the likes of Monza, Salernitana, Lecce, Cremonese, Verona and even the likes of Bologna and Sassuolo are fairly low, and the matches themselves are usually a violation of the eyes. People simply aren’t tuning in to watch Spezia or Cremonese and, in the end, it hurts the appeal of Serie A on the international market.
Reducing the number of teams in the league, with three going down, would improve the quality of the league. Less games would be in Serie A’s best interest, the scarcity factor bringing thus more interest and more money. Games would mean more and feel less like a procession, which many of the midweek rounds do.
Part of Serie A’s downfall over the last two decades was the decision to go to 20 teams, but shaving it down can be part of its revival. Yet it won’t be an easy issue to push through. Many of the smaller clubs will fight against it, knowing they’ll be losing out on major (compared to Serie B) TV money and this has always stifled any attempts in the past to bring the number down.
With the projected figure of the next TV deal set to be ever so slightly bigger than the 2021-24 deal of €2.9bn, Serie A needs to act now in order to grow at a quicker pace if its to catch up with La Liga and the Bundesliga ahead of the 2027-2030 cycle.
Reducing the league to 18 teams would be a major step in the right direction.