Asymmetric fixture calendars may not be the only reform to hit Italian domestic football this decade. Today, Italy’s top-flight clubs and the FIGC meet to discuss more radical reforms to the top league division, including the proposal to reduce Serie A to an 18-team league and the more extreme idea of a playoff and playout close season. It’s understood that the 18-team format is very likely to happen, whereas the latter reforms stand little chance of getting all clubs in agreement.
Serie A reducing itself to 18-team is nearly a given, in the light of the recent reforms to the Champions League. UEFA’s new format dumped a further four group stage games on the fixture list of Italy’s (and Europe’s) biggest teams, so it’s on the clubs and domestic football associations to react in kind and remove four top-flight games from the domestic schedule to compensate.
Around Europe, by the time the new CL competition format is underway, it’s thought that all of the Big Five Leagues will have reduced their domestic table to 18 competitors. Whoever chooses not to do so would be leaving themselves open to a competitive disadvantage on Europe’s biggest stage. The radical idea of a playoff season in Italy is another matter, however.
The idea, as reported by Calcio e Finanza, is that the Serie A regular season would be used to decide the top four, six, or potentially even top eight teams who would advance into a new post-season playoff, mimicking the televised success of US sports. At the other end of the table, there would also be a “playout” season for Serie A’s basement teams directly fighting to survive relegation. This new format stands very little chance of getting approved (and today’s meeting is only the first step in those talks), but there are enough motivated parties behind this idea for an unlikely alliance to push this radical reform through.
What (and who) would it take to get a Serie A post-season into existence? Let’s look at the players:
The FIGC vs Everyone
If there’s one man more motivated than anyone to remake the Italian domestic calendar, it’s re-elected FIGC chief Gabriele Gravina. These ideas came out of his election campaign, and football associations around Europe need to gain some “cache” back with their clubs over UEFA’s increasing power to create wealth within the game.
There’s an irony here in that, as the international football bodies UEFA and FIFA seek to bring more group stage football into their own competitions to protect their TV ratings, the domestic football associations are now looking to siphon the summer success of the UEFA Euros and FIFA World Cup by exploring the idea of more knockout football on the domestic front. Either way, football associations are the ones most under threat of getting cut out of football’s decision-making process in the modern era.
It used to be aprotocol that, when clubs had a problem, they would leave the matter with their football association to refer to UEFA. But since the growing success of the Champions League, now UEFA keeps a direct line open to talk to clubs. And then there’s FIFA getting more vocal, with every passing year, about making the World Cup a two-year event in the near future.
If Gabriele Gravina could push through the kind of reform that wins more TV ratings, money, and sponsorship for Italy’s leading clubs (and we mean the Atalantas as well as the Juves) then you’d have to believe more clubs will believe in the reward of working directly with the FIGC once again.
The Clubs vs FIFA and UEFA
The long-standing conflict of interest between clubs and the two international bodies is as old as the European Cup itself, and we’ve more or less just highlighted why, when looking at the FIGC’s motivation. The fact is: No matter how much clubs may work together with UEFA and FIFA, they’re always going to be competitors for the biggest sponsors in the game.
Clubs don’t get access to the biggest marketing accounts at worldwide brands like Coca-Cola, Heineken, and other potentially giant customers, because those brands have already set aside the biggest part of their football budget on keeping their spot in the World Cup and Euros.
UEFA Euro 2020 bought two notable success points for Italian football: Italy’s football jerseys are officially sold out until November (Puma claims they don’t have enough material to meet the new heights of demand) and the US-side TV ratings have never been higher at every step of the way through Italy’s successful Euro 2020 campaign. On the flip side, however, the domestic success of Euro 2020 within Italy itself has been an alarming defeat.
Euro 2020 ratings in Italy itself couldn’t match (let alone beat) the ratings from Euro 2016, and it all points towards Italian football having hit a “choke point” within Italy itself. The domestic fanbase just isn’t biting, but that only gives Italian clubs more reason to gun for global success through remote fans abroad.
We could sum up this issue with a simple question: Do you like Roma’s new cryptocurrency fan club tokens that give fans decision-making power at the club? Or are they another tax levied from the clubs to the fans?
Either way, Roma (and other clubs) have found a way around not being able to count on season-ticket income this coming 2021-2022 season. It’s not season-ticket holders in the Curva Sud that get to decide the new layout of Roma’s team bus. Not at all.
Instead of Roma asking for domestic fans to give away their time and money (an increasingly hard task), they’ve opened up a very similar income stream on a global stage to compensate and transferred the fans’ stakehold in the club from the domestic stage to the world wide web, in order to make that new income stream more enticing to Roma fans everywhere.
The bottom line is clubs are finding new ways to compete for remote, global fans and revenue. And if they’re going to secure them before UEFA and FIFA find a way to steer themselves in that lane, then it all comes back to that familiar stomping ground of competing for football’s biggest televised spectacle come May through to July.
And Finally... Serie A vs The Other Big Five Leagues
Putting on TV’s biggest summer (or pre-summer) spectacle could motivate Italy’s top-flight clubs to try stealing a march on the rest of Europe. How many Premier League, Bundesliga or La Liga fans would start switching over to the Serie A post-season every May, if Italian football were the only league to host a knockout format to decide the richest domestic prize in the Italian game? DAZN must be rubbing their hands at the very thought.
Calcio E Finanza reports that if this reform goes ahead, it would go ahead in time for the 2023-24 season, and the existing TV deal with DAZN wouldn’t have any clauses in place to stop the reform from happening (we can’t see much reason why the streaming network would want to veto it anyway) as the Lega Serie A and FIGC retained rights to make changes to the format of their competitions where necessary.
There’s also the added bonus for Italy’s biggest clubs who, having potentially secured their spot in the top-eight playoff season before the regular season is over, could go easy in the league and focus their efforts on European games throughout spring instead. You’d have to believe that such an edge would be short-lived, however, if the playoff format were to prove a resounding success in Italy. It surely wouldn’t be long before other leagues around Europe began to copy the formula. Yet the arguments against this reform are simple: Pure league football has a history of separating the crème from la very crème.
A 38-game, uninterrupted league calendar has a tendency to reward the very best team in the land, without fail, time and again. But that’s the unspoken problem for the rest of us: How many more times can we stomach seeing Juventus lift the title? Or see an Inter team dismantled for taking the risks necessary in breaking that Juve hegemony? And how much more welcome would it be to see a team like Roma, Verona, or Cagliari get their name on the country’s richest trophy beyond the repeated success of Italy’s Big Three?
Would the Serie A post-season be a great idea or an unfair way to decide the title?
This poll is closed
I prefer pure league football. Leave knockout football to the cup competitions.
Serie A playoffs are a great idea. I’d tune in.