In the 1990s, Italy’s top league, Serie A, was the epicenter of European football, with superstars such as Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit, Roberto Baggio, Ronaldo and Paulo Maldini celebrating Scudetto and lifting multiple UEFA trophies. But the new millennium brought match-fixing, debt and falling revenues.
Now, Serie A is seeing a rebound. On the pitch, traditional powers AC Milan and Inter Milan square off in the first leg of today’s UEFA Champions League semifinals, and in Thursday’s UEFA’s Europa League semifinals, Serie A’s AS Roma plays Bayern Leverkusen while fellow Italian club Juventus faces Sevilla.
On the balance sheet, thanks in large part to a steady flow of American ownership interest, the picture is looking up as well, with Serie A revenues growing faster than those in rival European leagues.
Yet this is still Italian soccer, where scandal often feels like business as usual. Italian authorities are in the midst of two ongoing investigations into financial misconduct by Serie A clubs, with one of the probes ensnaring American-owned Roma.
That’s not to minimize the good news. According to Deloitte’s Annual Review of Football Finance, Serie A clubs saw the greatest percentage growth in aggregate revenues among the big five European soccer leagues in 2020-21, collectively increasing 23% to $2.7 billion (€2.5 billion). Serie A was also the only league that reported more revenue than it amassed in 2018-19. While the growth was mostly driven by higher broadcast revenues, 14 out of 17 clubs reported increased commercial revenue, totaling $124 million.
The league’s fiscal renaissance started when investors—mostly from North America—saw untapped value in Serie A teams experiencing financial difficulties in the decade or so after the 2008 financial crisis.
Most recently, Gerry Cardinale’s RedBird Capital acquired 19-time Serie A champions AC Milan in a 2022 deal that valued the team at $1.3 billion. Cardinale bought the team from U.S.-based Elliott Investment Management, which cashed out after taking control of AC Milan from struggling owner Li Yonghong in 2018.
Cardinale is part of a wave of North American ownership that Serie A president Lorenzo Casini says has boosted the health of the league. “American owners not only increased the degree of professionalism, but they also brought more attention to the market, long-term investments, merchandising and entertainment,” Casini said in an interview. “The diversity of ownerships is an added value of Serie A.”
Still, the Americans have not been spared from Italian authorities’ recent financial misconduct accusations, known as the plusvalenza (capital gains) scandal.
On April 5, prosecutors seized financial documents from three clubs, including Roma, relating to transfer deals and the methods used to set transfer prices. Roma did not respond to Sportico’s request for comment but has denied wrongdoing in a statement and said the club is “cooperating with the authorities.”
Before the investigation of Roma, prosecutors in Turin had launched a separate probe against Juventus for allegedly inflating player transfer valuations to make the club’s year-end accounting more favorable. The investigation led a sports court to dock 15 points in the league standings from the club in January, jeopardizing its chances for a lucrative Champions League slot next season. However, on April 20, a higher court ruled that the punishment against Juve had to be revised, reinstating the points, at least temporarily.
Juventus did not respond Sportico’s request for comment.
Despite these issues, the league's traditional powerhouses Milan, Inter and Juventus are all playing for UEFA trophies, and there’s competitive balance, too, as evidenced by Napoli’s Serie A title (after 33 years) and Juve’s hold on second place. Off the pitch, Venezia and Roma jerseys are selling out thanks to successful marketing campaigns—and Kim Kardashian.
Cardinale says the rebound has been abetted by the Yanks in the C-suites. "Americans have been, as the business of sports goes, a little bit ahead of the Europeans, in aggregating revenue streams around rights holders and elevating the fan experience," Cardinale said in video call.
According to Milan’s latest financial results for the 2021-22 season, the 123-year-old club reduced its pre-tax loss by over 30% to $66 million (€60 million) and saw revenues increase by 14% to $328 million (€297.7 million) as opposed to $287.5 million (€261.1 million) from the previous financial year. The gains were the result of increased matchday revenue and higher income from commercial activities, royalties and sponsorship agreements.
The RedBird founder has been rebuilding Milan by navigating the transfer market and player development with a foundation in data analytics. “It’s in all of our interests to have Serie A be as competitive as possible, because that is what will make it a more valuable league,” he said.
Recent changes in Italian legislation around the commercialization of broadcast rights, gambling and infrastructure position Serie A for a new era. The league can negotiate longer media deals, and it plans to form a media company to boost its commercial activities.
"On the field, Serie A is a good product. But the league needs to find ways to bridge the gap that's opened up," Chris Mann, the head of M&A advisory at Sportsology, a boutique sports consulting firm, told Sportico.
While the English Premier League isn't a realistic point of comparison for Serie A, Mann said the league could catch up to Spain’s LaLiga.
“Is Italy the market with the lowest risk for football investors in its current state? Not in the present moment, but the green shoots of a compelling growth story are there to see if Serie A can get on top of its off-field issues like plusvalenza scandal and push for greater transparency and commercial sophistication.”