Note: This is the first in a series of season previews CDT is about to bombard you with over the next 10 days
April 16, 2011: that was the day the Thomas DiBenedetto takeover became official, though because of the vagaries that come with purchasing a nearly $400 million football club, the actual transaction did not occur until August 18, 2011; Project Roma's unofficial Day One, as it were.
While many of us have visions of the day Roma will no longer be referred to as a "Project", competing for domestic and European honors in a glimmering new stadium, becoming a destination for the world's top players and generally being among Europe's elite football clubs, the current incarnation of the club remains in its infancy.
Almost a year to the day the takeover became official, we're left to ask what have we learned from year one and what can we expect in year two?
If year one had any resonating themes, experimentation and cost-cutting were foremost among them. As we read this week, the club has managed to pare its payroll by nearly €28 million from its 2010 levels. Walter Sabatini and Franco Baldini wasted little time in jettisoning the bloated salaries of players too mercurial, too old, or simply to ineffective to justify their large salaries. Gone in the proverbial blink of an eye were Jeremy Menez, Mirko Vucinic, John Arne Riise, Doni and Philippe Mexes. It was a new era, with a distinct Catalonian flavor.
The Luis Enrique era was nothing if not controversial, in the absence of those recently departed veterans, his willingness to give significant minutes to young players like Erik Lamela, Miralem Pjanic and Fabio Borini has already borne fruit for the Project. Lamela and Pjanic figure to be cornerstones for the next decade, while Enrique's insertion of Borini into the lineup allowed the young Italian to flourish, thereby increasing his eventual sale price.
On the pitch, Project Roma: Year One was all about shedding the fat and investing in young, extremely high upside players, which they accomplished (and continue to accomplish) in spades. Some will be hits, some will be misses, but even if a fraction of them fulfill their potential, we're looking at a young, potent, and cost-controlled lineup, particularly in the midfield and attack, leaving ample room for profit to be invested back into the club, making consistent success more likely and hopefully ending the Northern hegemony.
Off the pitch, year one was all about increasing the teams visibility abroad. No need to rehash the U.S. Tour, which we did here, here, here and here. There was also a concerted effort to increase A.S. Roma's presence in the digital realm, in the words of James Pallotta:
It's our role to build up the team's commercial business so it provides our football club the tools to compete consistently at the highest level while also developing a global media platform that allows our worldwide fan base to follow Roma in a highly engaged fashion
While not perfect, the new website offers a wide array of news, photos and videos in English and Italian, not to mention the vastly improved online store, ticket resources and even mobile games and apps. My only quibble, the stories on the main page scroll WAY too fast. With an increase in season ticket sales, club membership and even Roma channel subscriptions, this part of the project is off to a roaring start and shows no signs of abating.
But we knew most of that, so what can we expect from Project Roma: Year Two?
With a payroll hovering around €56M, one can say that the BS boys have done quite well to reduce the payroll-seriously, they've gone from over €80M down to €56M in a mere two years- but there is the small matter of an estimated €100M gap in revenue between Roma and the Milan clubs. Like I said, the project is still in its infancy, but given the pace with which they've made changes, successful ones at that, add some Champions League money, and the gap might shrink quicker than we'd hoped.
Decreasing the revenue gap with northern clubs might help explain why Roma have not been connected with nor chased any mega stars; indeed, this summer's mercato has been shockingly similar to last seasons: Go Young and Go South American. With most of the young players purchased this season and last locked into 3-5 year deals, the payroll should remain relatively constant, there is no foreseeable DeRossi like raise on the horizon, so if ZZ can work his magic and get Roma back to the Champions League, the revenues should increase and the gap between Roma and the northern clubs should shrink. Even more so if the business side of the project, the website, the future American and Asian tours etc., start becoming cash cows.
This brings us to the next and most exciting component of the project, the new stadium. While it certainly won't be completed in year two, the front office has narrowed the list of locales down to four possible sights, with Tor Di Valle the leader in the clubhouse at the moment, having recently been visited by DiBenedetto himself. Though it only exists in certain men's imaginations, it has been reported that Roma's new digs will seat 45,000, and host office/hotel space, copious parking, a conference center and even a shopping center, covering an estimated 160 hectares. The front office hopes to settle on a location for the new stadium by the end of August or early September.
While the second year of the DiBenedetto regime figures to be an expansion of the groundwork laid in year one, in terms of the financial and infrastructural aspects, the shift to Zemlandia 2.0 is a massively important undertaking, in terms of both football and finances. If the club has any hope of achieving DiBenedetto's stated aims of world dominance, they absolutely must reach the champions league and compete for scudettos on a yearly basis; success begets adulation, adulation begets revenue, revenue sustains success.
Zeman was chosen for a reason; to excite the fans, outscore opponents and to develop our young players, so in a sense, he is the perfect man for this project. If he can help Lamela, Pjanic, Destro and Bojan take the next step towards stardom, and if Burdisso, Castan and Balzaretti can plug the holes in the damn, then Roma might have a shot at the top three and Project Roma: Year Two will be a rousing success.
It will be interesting to see how history describes the DiBenedetto era. In many ways he is not only attempting to revolutionize Roma, but Serie A as a whole, who have been slow to adapt to modern sports business practices, falling behind the English Premier League and German Bundesliga in the chase for cash. The business model is there, you serve fans in two ways: when they attend games, give them a comfortable, welcoming environment, complete with all the modern amenities, when they don't, make the team an omnipresent and indispensable part of their life, put Roma in their homes, their phones, their tablets, their gaming devices and so on...the league as a whole has been slow on this uptake and Roma, prior to the takeover, has lagged behind the more moneyed northern clubs.
Juventus is already showing the league the benefits of owning their own football-only stadium, Udinese has plans in the works and Inter might be teaming up with a Chinese construction company to create their own home ground. Even though Roma (the city, not the club) withdrew their names from the 2020 Olympic bid, an increase in modern stadiums will help Serie A as a whole generate revenue, which will make the league stronger and more attractive to top players, Italian or otherwise, it should also help Italy in future World Cup and Olympic bids.
So while Italy has been slow to follow the modern sports business model, the tide seems to be turning. Roma, if they are to claim a place among the elite, would be wise to be at the forefront of this revolution...and it all starts with Year Two.