Postcard from Europe: Roma's Americanization paying off
AMSTERDAM – A year ago, when Boston businessman Thomas DiBenedetto and his partners bought out AS Roma, fans of the storied Italian club were suspicious. After all, no American had ever set roots in a Serie A boardroom, and experiences in American ownership had been mixed all throughout Europe.
One year later, fans are generally on board with a star-spangled plan to win the league within five years while going global in the marketplace. The results may not yet be there on the field, but worries of Glazer 2.0 in the Eternal City are long forgotten.
That’s because DiBenedetto and his team have brought into the Roma executive suite a concept that is as red, white and blue as it gets: a plan to make money.
"I think DiBenedetto and those guys saw AS Roma as undervalued," soccer scribe Gabriele Marcotti – whose employers include Corriere dello Sport, SI.com and The Times – told MLSsoccer.com. "The Premier League clubs come at a premium. In Serie A, I think you could say the club is punching below its weight."
Roma have indeed underperformed in recent years. They have but three Serie A titles to their name – the last in 2000-01 – and have never tasted major European silver at any point. It’s a bit of an eyesore for the biggest club in Italy’s biggest market – the capital city, no less.
That’s on DiBenedetto’s to-do list, of course. He says he wants to “turn Roma into one of the best clubs in the world, a team capable of winning the Scudetto every year and finally challenging for the Champions League.” He has a college-days connection to the Eternal City and affection for their beloved Giallorossi.
Consider all these parts of the romantic notions of ownership. Chasing silver isn't just about championship glory, and the new owners didn't buy Roma to be in the business of making it American. At the core of the purchase, they're just Americans trying to do Roma business.
DiBenedetto has yet to succeed in his stated desire to bring a US national team star to Rome, as transfer-window plans often don't pan out. Fans back in Rome initially barked mad, as fans in Rome often do. The club also tried to quickly cobble together a couple of stateside exhibition matches, but clubs had already set their agendas. Since then, nearly everything has gone to plan.
Roma expect to play three friendly in the United States this summer. A July 25 date against Liverpool at Boston’s Fenway Park is the lone confirmed friendly so far, but MLSsoccer.com has learned that tentative talks have taken place to line up crosstown archnemesis Lazio in New York and Clint Dempsey's Fulham in Chicago.
They may not get those exact dream matchups in the end, but the shrewdness is now at work for Roma. After almost 20 years of a roller-coaster ride with the Sensi family in charge, the club seems on the right track. While the previous owners brought Roma the 2000-01 Scudetto and two Coppa Italia wins, their front office also piled up a reputed $400 million in debt by spending erratically and under-utilizing their ability to generate income.
"There are certain parts from the business side that [are] foreign to most of the Italian clubs," DiBenedetto told BBC's World Football last summer.
There won't be any more of that. The new chief's real first priority was to balance the books, with the target of increasing revenue by 30 percent in the first five years. American tours are just a pinky toe in the pool, to both their business ideas and American expansion.
Following the expiration of Chelsea's four-year deal in June, Roma are set to become the official club of the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Fla., through at least 2018, and have lined up commercial opportunities at Disney's theme parks as well. Aside from the obvious boost of connecting with these two American entertainment Goliaths, they will be the first Serie A club to do winter training in America.
Even projects back in Rome have been brushed with American flourishes. Perhaps the biggest undertaking is a new stadium, for which Roma have enlisted Chicago firm Cushman & Wakefield to choose among the proposed sites. Colorado architect Dan Meis, who designed Philadelphia's Lincoln Financial Field and the Staples Center in Los Angeles, is hard at work on the design.
League leaders Juventus are currently the only Italian team not playing in a public stadium. By owning their own building, Roma will not only shed decrepit, fan-unfriendly Stadio Olimpico, they can boost gate revenue by 500 percent.
"They've been quite clever in the way they've gone about it," said Marcotti. "Chief executive Franco Baldini is, in my opinion, one of the smartest people in the game at any level. He's been very good at getting the fans onto this whole process."
So while top USMNT crush Bradley for now remains suited up elsewhere and a perhaps-naïve marketing idea to change the Roma logo has been quickly shelved, DiBenedetto & Co. are well underway with plans to revitalize the club's income and stature across the board – and across the Atlantic.
They won't return to the Champions League just yet. But if the new owners keep succeeding in making the coffers grow, it won’t be long until they’re giving Chelsea and Bayern a run for their money.