Serie A kicks off its 2017-18 season this week, and while Italy’s world-famous clubs are still in the league, something is missing.
It wasn’t so long ago that Italy dominated Europe. Serie A was the financial powerhouse of European soccer, and its clubs ruled the Champions League. Now, Juventus has cruised to six consecutive titles, Italian clubs struggle in Europe, and famous names like AC Milan and Inter and Lazio have become also-rans.
It’s worth wondering: What happened to Serie A?
The answer, as it always is in today’s game, is a story of money, but the decline might have begun with a very Italian scandal. In 2006, just as Juventus was clinching the title, investigators uncovered a plot to fix a huge number of games by influencing which referees were assigned to them. “Calciopoli,” as the Italians called the scandal, resulted in severe penalties. Juventus was stripped of the 2005 and 2006 titles and relegated to Serie B. Lazio, AC Milan, Fiorentina and Reggina suffered huge points deductions in the standings.
That’s not the only thing that’s gone wrong. Several clubs have gone bankrupt or lost their wealthy benefactors, and UEFA’s new Financial Fair Play rules have tied the hands of any owner who might now buy in and spend beyond his means.
Perhaps more important, most Italian teams have struggled in vain to build their own stadiums. Even now, only a handful are owners rather than renters, which limits the amount of money that they can bring in on game days. As much as anything, Juventus could trace its recent success to the opening of its new stadium in 2011, while its traditional competitors, AC Milan and Inter (in Milan), and Roma and Lazio (in Rome) share crumbling government-owned stadiums.
With stadium revenue out of the picture, clubs have to turn to TV broadcast money and sponsorships. But here, too, Italian soccer is struggling. The bids for the league’s TV contract, starting next season, were so underwhelming this summer that the league postponed the bidding until this fall.
Sponsorships, meanwhile, are down, in part because the limited broadcast opportunities for the league make sponsorships less enticing, but also because the Italian economy has suffered disaster after disaster. It seems inevitable now that Italy’s poor governance would eventually have a negative effect on its treasured soccer league, and the economy has been another drag on the league as other European leagues have taken off.
All signs point to another title this year for Juventus, though AC Milan has retooled under new owners and Inter finally seems to have settled down after several years of upheaval. It would be good for Serie A to have some competition, just as it was good for France when Monaco ended Paris Saint-Germain’s stranglehold on the French title.
As the season kicks off, though, the future — like the past decade or two — doesn’t look that bright. It’s been a sad fall for Serie A.
• It’s opening weekend for Gophers soccer after a successful preseason in which Minnesota defeated Creighton 1-0 and Kansas State 2-0. Improving on last year’s Big Ten title-winning season won’t be easy. The Gophers’ goal has to be a repeat title, plus an NCAA tournament run.
• Forbes published its annual list of MLS franchise valuations this week, with the Los Angeles Galaxy taking the top spot, at $315 million based on 2016 financial information. The Columbus Crew brought up the rear at $130 million. Minnesota United, which joined MLS this season, was not part of the rankings. With 13 clubs worth more than $200 million, and recent expansion teams NYC and Orlando in the top five, it’s no wonder that potential expansion ownership groups are lining up to throw money at MLS.
• Champions League fans are about to get the short end of the pay-TV stick. Turner Sports announced that when it starts televising games in 2018-19, it will relegate almost all of the games to a new pay-streaming service, with few broadcast on cable. That’s unlike Fox, the current broadcaster, which makes many more games available on TV or online. It’s part of the way sports seems to be headed these days — find something people really like, then squeeze them for a few extra dollars to keep it.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
Bundesliga: Borussia Dortmund at Wolfsburg, 8:30 a.m. Saturday, FS1. American viewers might have every Dortmund game bookmarked as must-watch this year, as Christian Pulisic tries to establish himself as a consistent cog on one of Germany’s best teams. Pulisic and company have an uphill battle to chase Bayern Munich this year, as always.
Serie A: Cagliari at Juventus, 11 a.m. Saturday, beIN Sports. The reigning Italian champions start their defense at home, but without Leonardo Bonucci and Dani Alves, two stalwarts from last year. Manager Max Allegri has successfully navigated departures before, but this year seems like a huge challenge.
Liga MX: Pumas at Tigres, 7 p.m. Saturday, Univision. After scoring five goals in the season’s opening game, the Tigres attack has fallen flat, scoring just once in each of the next three games — a winless stretch for the league favorites. Three games is a cold streak for any team, but it represents nearly a fifth of the Apertura season.
Premier League: Chelsea at Tottenham, 10 a.m. Sunday, NBCSN. Tottenham, undefeated at home last year, opens its home schedule this year at Wembley Stadium. The Spurs will need to settle quickly if they are to challenge for the title. Chelsea is in disarray after an opening-week home loss to lowly Burnley in which two Blues were sent off.