Enough butterflies have flapped their wings in far-flung parts of the world to cause the hurricanes required to bring me to the east coast of the USA last weekend. After convincing some calcio illiterate American friends to join me, it wasn’t long before I was sitting in an NFL stadium watching two Italian football teams walk onto the field.
I have always been firmly entrenched in the sceptic camp when it comes to the issue of Roma’s takeover by the American sporting tycoons. The overriding factor that plunged me into AS Roma fandom is the fire and passion that connects the city to the team. Any threat to this connection evokes a defensive response. You protect the things you love. Understandably many of us viewed the new American overlords as one such threat to the connection between the city and team.
It is therefore with rather large doses of Romanista tinted scepticism that I view the annual pre-season parade of Roma INC throughout the US of A. Naturally, the only way to gather an objective understanding of this was to dive head long into the roadshow circus and sit amongst the curious American sports fans.
Lining up to enter the stadium, I was impressed by the number of people wearing an assortment of replica Roma and Inter jerseys from the last decade or so. Even though the official attendance reported below 13,000 people, it sure seemed like there were more there.
Once the game got underway it was striking to see how the crowd could be split into distinct camps.
The first one was the Italian speaking tifosi who were obviously closely tied to either team or Serie A as a whole. I noticed two small sections of about a dozen people (one Roma, one Inter) where they were occasionally singing songs you’d hear in the Curva during the regular stagione. Then there were randoms dotted around the stadium in Napoli, Juve or Milan gear; hell there was even one guy in a Cagliari shirt!
The second distinct group were those in either Roma or Inter colours who were clearly partisan supporters but didn't quite seem full-bottle with what was going on. I was certainly surprised by the number of people cheering for Roma. This was done usually through the suspiciously American chants of "Roma! (clap, clap, clap) Roma! (clap, clap, clap)" and "Lets go Roma! (clap, clap, clappity clap)." And every now and then a loud "Forza Roma!" was yelled without the slightest attempt of correct pronunciation, but a good deal of enthusiasm none the less.
The third was of course neutral football fans, mainly Hispanic, who came to watch a decent game.
And finally, (and safely the majority) sat the bewildered average Joe’s who took their kids along. The dude next to me politely enquired whether this game actually meant anything and seemed a touch disappointed when I told him it was just a friendly.
The actual match itself is of little consequence. There’s simply no point lamenting our fullbacks or the lack of movement in the final third at this stage. What is was, though, was an opportunity to check out Roma’s present and future players without internet pop-ups (advertising lengthy erections) or streams stuttering and stopping just as Totti is about to send a lofted through ball down the wing.
It was also a fantastic opportunity for James Pallotta to see just how far along Roma’s attempted conquest of the USA market had come in the last few years. For the sake of argument, lets call this Project Romanistasses.
Firstly, brand awareness.
In order to fall in love with something (casual bandwagon fans need not apply) one must first be aware of its existence. With Roma missing out on Champions League action since 2011 (has it really been that long or am I getting old?) and the subsequent decline in Serie A’s reputation, Roma has had to lean on alternate marketing strategies since the Spalletti days. This is where the American suits earn their money. No one truly understands sport as a show business like these guys.
There is more to this than just a Nike contract. It is an attempt to get Roma uttered in American English with the same regularity as Man United, Liverpool and Chelsea. To do this, the suits have focused on creating a social media platform as well as towing the team across the Atlantic at every opportunity to get photos with Donald Duck. The recruitment of Michael Bradley and potentially DeAndre Yedlin also fall under this heading, as does the omnipotent presence of Francesco Totti and Daniele De Rossi. And this ball seems to be moving in the correct direction as most of the stadium gave Totti a standing ovation as he was substituted onto the field.
Also fortunately for the powers to be, AS Roma just happens to be located in one of the most famous cities in the world. After the match I headed to the bar just outside the stadium and struck up a conversation with a cute blonde dressed in Totti’s 2009 kit. This girl had studied at one of the American university campuses in Rome and, although certainly not being an avid fan, the increased brand awareness that had indeed brought Roma to her home city had rekindled her connection, no matter how tenuous it was.
This is also a key point of friction for the old guard tifosi who are greatly unenthused by Project Romanistasses. For plenty of reasons (most fair enough, others rather bigoted) these guys deplore the idea of little Johnny leaving his Tom Brady jersey on the coat hanger as he reaches over for his Totti one.
Of course, the practicalities of this argument hold little water in the battle for sporting success.
Which brings us to the next point, on field results.
After two rather lean years under the American ownership, Roma turned the corner last year. The moneyball strategy of recruiting young studs that can later be flipped for a profit or kept on has had its fair share of critics. This does not allow uber signings like Batistuta, Cassano or….Borriello (I jest, dear friends, I jest.) but it presents an opportunity to build a solid squad that can potentially compete for titles whilst keeping the cash registers ticking over in the correct direction.
And this is where the Champions League comes in. In order for Pallotta’s strategy to be maintained, (read: avoid running deep in the red), Roma must continue to qualify and start to knock on the door of the knockout stages. Such success is crucial in maintaining the attention of any new generation soccer supporter who wants to be able to hold their own in pissing contests with their EPL loving buddies. It is this sort of supporter that offers the growth industry in the Land of the Free (as well as Asia and Australia) just ask Manchester City and Chelsea. The fact that Roma’s current rise is coming on the back of a strong USA showing in the last world cup certainly provides fertile territory for Project Romanistasses.
The penultimate factor in the battle for America, and one dear to many at CDT, is the literal branding of players and supporters. Merchandi$e.
This is hands down, the strongest weapon in the American’s arsenal when it comes to weighing up the pros and cons of their ownership. Say what you want about this country and their politics, these guys know how to flip a buck with both sponsors and replica fanwear. It wasn’t that long ago where a trip to the Roma store at Piazza Colonna resulted in a fruitless search for a non-goalkeeping jersey that was the correct size. As for ordering official Roma gear from another country? Fah-getta-bouddit!
The off-field revolution in both presentation and execution in connecting with English speaking fans has been excellent. And when this side of the house is in order it adds credibility to the brand awareness while also encouraging those flirting with the idea of following a team to jump on board. With that said, Pallotta and Co sure did screw the pooch when it came to redesigning the team's logo, something the Curva Sud like to remind everyone about during the big games at home.
The final chapter to Project Romanistasses is the goal of achieving brand fidelity or loyalty.
This is where things get a little tricky. Loyalty to AS Roma, for those living in Rome or who have been brought up living and breathing Giallorossi, is a non issue. The biggest concern is not whether to continue supporting the team but whether to burn effigies of the owners or picket the training ground when things go off the rails.
Pallotta’s project on the other hand relies on luring new consumers and entrapping them with positive experiences. The great irony here is that one of the most attractive factors of supporting this team is the sheer extremes of the highs and lows. Tragedy and suffering are just as integral to supporting Roma as is appreciating Totti’s vision or De Rossi’s commitment.
The stated goal of evolving Roma into a footballing superpower will come at the expense of appreciating the truly rubbish times this club has dragged each one of its fans through. This might sound nice and rosy on the surface, but deep down each one of you know this suffering is an affirmation of what makes this fan base tick.
Is this tacit approval for mediocrity? No of course not. But the chip on the shoulder is one of the great burdens Pallotta must work through in order to gain acceptance and approval both in the home country and abroad.
So how exactly does one evaluate Project Romanistasses and attribute it a pass or fail mark? The goal posts shift from person to person, long term to short term.
Will results, title challenges, trophies and sexy away strips translate into Non si discute, si ama?
Lucky for us at CDT we already have a petri dish of Project Romanistasses. Being an English speaking blog we enjoy the company of tifosi from around the world. This place’s opinions shift with the wind in regards to all things AS Roma and it is always interesting to view contrasting visions of what Roma should be.
Whether you lust for the casual fan street cred of a Bayern Munich or are sated with a Scudetto challenge once or twice a decade, does not make you any more or less welcome.
The American ownership have shaken things up both in Roma and her new world colony which has deviated the club from the standard Serie A course. Real ambition is being displayed and backed up with stadium plans and Sabatini signings. Whether you weep for the Sensi days or get a hard on for new mobile apps, now is a very interesting time to be a Roma fan.
Over to you, scallywags!