While in the short-term, football is an athletic competition, in the long-term, it is more of an economic competition. How can Roma win the long-term competition with Juve?
Performance on the pitch is obviously paramount to the success of a club, but the ability to recruit and pay the best players, managers, coaches, general managers, etc., depends on the status and resources of a club. These assets are not often won or lost in a single match. Instead, they are cultivated slowly in the boardroom and on the negotiating table across many shrewd decisions, but, unfortunately, sometimes they can be lost in a flash with a few bad moves. One too many Juan Iturbes and a club can be lost at sea for years.
Which club will rise to the top, dominating others both on the pitch and off it? This is a question about the hierarchy of clubs, and a great deal of thought and research has gone into understanding what organizations—in this case football clubs—can do to change their lot in life. A club’s place in the football hierarchy depends on a delicate interplay between it’s performance, status, and finances.
Performance is critical because it is the largest driver of a club’s status and financial position. Wins—especially silverware—increase a club’s status. Similarly, wins earn performance bonuses, better deals from sponsors, and a larger share of the money from TV deals. This goes the other way, too. The more money a club has, the more it can pay in transfer fees and salaries to lure in the best players and ultimately improve performances.
But, what does a club’s status do?
Low status is detrimental to a club’s prospects. A club in China could have a 100% win rate and all the money in the world, but, without the status of the Champions League and top league competition, they wouldn’t be able to recruit the best players. As we have seen, Chinese clubs can only pick off the most pragmatic of players by offering two, three, or even four times the wages they would earn in Europe. Similarly, Leicester City had the performance and the funds after the 2015/16 Premier League win, but they quickly shed many key players and were even talked about as relegation candidates at various times since. When a low status team punches above their weight, they get raided by the true heavyweights.
On the other hand, when Juve was relegated to Serie B for its central roll in the match-fixing scandal in 2006, no one expected the Old Lady to drift off into lower league oblivion. We knew they would come back and compete for titles soon enough. Maybe we underestimated just how quickly they would be back at the top of the table, or how long they would stay there, but we knew it wasn’t the end of their story. Why? Why did so many world class players like Buffon, Del Piero, and Chiellini suffer the indignities of playing in Serie B? It’s because of the respect the players have for Juve and their ultimate belief that the club’s setback was temporary.
Status is an essential part of a club’s long-term success.
Yet, of performance, money, and status, status is the least thought about and the least talked about. Maybe because it is difficult to quantify or measure, or maybe because football loses some of its magic when we think about the importance of status.
However, when no one wants to think about something and little attention is paid to it, that is often an opportunity to take advantage. Clubs compete fiercely for the best players and the most profit, resulting in the slimmest of margins to be gained for outmaneuvering each other. These areas are saturated. Investing in increasing the club’s status could bring in the greatest returns on investment.
In business, this is called a Blue Ocean strategy. Instead of fighting costly battles over a few scraps that everyone is going for (i.e. red ocean strategies), look to the open waters.
Unfortunately, status is not easy to change. It is one of the most stable characteristics of a club because hierarchies self-reinforce in a lot of different ways. One reason is that it will be easier for people, including refs, to err on the side of higher status teams. For example, there is a lot of research showing that crowd noise biases refs in favor of the home team, and, naturally, bigger clubs will have bigger crowds making more noise. Plus, there is greater risk for referees making decisions less favorable for big clubs than smaller clubs because there would be stronger backlash related to the connections, support, and resources that bigger clubs wield.
Another way that status is self-reinforcing is the decisions of players and managers. They want to win, and so they are more interested in joining clubs that they think are more likely to win, even if the underdog is a better tactical fit or willing to pay more money. Of course, there are many other ways higher status clubs maintain their position, but hopefully you get the point already. Big clubs have many advantages that help them stay at the top.
Therefore, in addition to focusing on performance and finances, Roma can and should find ways to directly increase its status. If we can do this, then playing at the highest levels will start to feel more like we are swimming with the stream than against it.
While it is still much easier to lose status than to gain it, clubs can improve their long-term prospects. The most successful approach we’ve seen in recent years is a prolonged spending spree. If an owner can dump money into a club for long enough, they can start off by overpaying some players until the club wins a trophy or two, and then they can ride that momentum to bring in more top players. It doesn’t take long before everyone thinks of the club as one of the best in the world. We saw this approach with Chelsea and now Manchester City. Ironically, because the recent FFP interventions are effectively putting the kibosh on this strategy, the game becomes more fair in some respects, but it is also essentially locking in place the current status hierarchy, making upward mobility even more difficult for clubs that aren’t already top earners. Therefore, even if Roma had the money to dump into the club, we would need to find alternative approaches.
Generally, status comes form being the best and being affiliated with the best, so here are a few thoughts about specific strategies Roma can pursue that could help increase its status.
- The best clubs have the best fanbases. Therefore, there should be no reason why anyone is embarrassed to be a Roma fan. That means get rid of the violent element of the Roma ultras immediately and fight to get violence out of football, period. Start a campaign with other top clubs to keep the names of hooligans that commit violent crimes out of the media. Just like with public shootings, it should be obvious that part of the motivation of violent club supporters is the notoriety that comes with being identified publicly. Do not let them claim credit for their actions. Instead, each and every one of them should just end up anonymously rotting in jail. Hopefully, this can reduce football-related violence.
- Not only that, but being a fan should be fun. Players need to know supporters are behind them through thick and thin, and supporters need to feel good about being Romanisti. That means cultivating a healthier and more encouraging culture among the supporters. No more boxes of carrots left at Trigoria to mock the players. The club should help us to feel connected to the players so we are aware of the direct impact we are having on them. Show us how we affect the players. It will give fans more sympathy for the players when they lose and more joy when they win. The deeper the connection we build with the team, the better.
- The skill of the players should be the only thing holding back the team performance, nothing else. The team has clearly improved its mentality relative to previous years, but there is still more work to do. We didn’t suffer any 7-1 defeats this year, but we need to stop digging ourselves enormous holes in the first leg. They players did well to regain their composure, especially at Anfield where they pulled 2 goals back, allowing the team to be competitive in the 2nd leg. But, it would be a lot easier if we didn’t give up such insurmountable leads in the first place. The club must have sports psychologists already, but obviously something isn’t tuned right yet and improvement is needed. Motivation and psychology is hugely important for performance, and to spend around €100 million on salaries and under-invest in the psychological side would be a huge lost opportunity.
- We have had a ton of hugely talented players come through the club, and too often it feels more like they are passing through than truly a part of the club’s DNA. We need to push the limits for how long we can hold on to top players before selling them. We have sold too many players before they have reached their peak value (e.g. Salah, Paredes, Rudiger, Pjanic, etc.). The higher the standard of play we can maintain, the higher the standard of player we can bring in. Imagine if we had held all of them for another year. The standard of play would be higher, and after holding one player a little longer, it would be easier to hold onto others longer. It is a win-win for Roma because it means performing better by keeping top players but also higher transfer fees because the players will be more mature and more valuable by the time they leave.
- Foster the intrinsic motivation of the players. There’s research showing that greater intrinsic motivation leads to greater quality of performance. Make playing fun and enjoyable again. Help the players build strong connections with each other so they care about the performance of the team. This is another reason to build more connections between the team and the fans so that the players can see the enjoyment fans get from their play. More than that, it is way more fun to support a player if you know they are enjoying themselves. Kaka, Ronaldinho, Salah...these have been some of the most fun players to watch because they are constantly smiling on the pitch. These kinds of steps should make the games more fun for the fans and give players extra motivation to play even just a little bit better.
In the end, status, performance, and finances are all entangled, so it is hard to change one without first changing the others, but, it would be a mistake to not focus closely on how to change each of them. Clubs seem to focus primarily on finances and performance, so there may be a unique opportunity for Roma to improve its circumstances by investing in increasing its status. Whatever happens on the field against Juventus this week is certainly important; however, how Roma approaches the issue of its status could go a long way in determining what happens on the field against Juventus in the decades to come.