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Serie A’s TV revenues are declining. Should the league return to 18 clubs?

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We examine the pros and cons of a shrunken Serie A

FC Crotone v Parma Calcio - Serie A
Sorry guys...
Photo by Gabriele Maricchiolo/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Over the last few days, Serie A has wrapped up two major broadcasting deals. The first was an agreement with CBS for TV rights in the United States. The second, more important agreement, was a deal with DAZN for €840 million per season for exclusive TV rights within Italy itself through the 2023-2024 season. Over the next few weeks, more and more deals will be announced which will have a large impact on the financial health of the league.

While the CBS deal represents a 30% increase in value for the US market, Serie A lost money domestically. The DAZN deal actually declined by more than 10% compared to SKY Italia’s previous agreement with the league. In addition, other international rights around the world are expected to drop as well.

However, the drop in revenue has little to do with a decline in consumer demand. Serie A’s feud with Qatar over its decision to host Supercoppa finals in Saudi Arabia led to Qatari-owned Bein Sports, previously worth 50% of the league’s international packages, has dropped out and persuaded its intermediaries to do the same. In addition, younger viewers are more likely to cord-cut and ditch traditional TV altogether, while advertising losses from Covid-19 also make providers more unwilling to splash out on large live sports deals. Even the German Bundesliga’s new domestic agreement was 5% less than the previous one.

Regardless, Serie A is going to have to figure out how to draw more eyes to the league to minimize the decline in revenue, and thus a decline in the quality of the league. Currently, it’s hard to see Serie A as anything better than the 4th best league in the world, and its results in Europe have been uninspiring, to say the least (thanks again Porto!).

While increased quality does not magically create more demand, looking at the top-grossing leagues in the world, there is certainly a correlation between the two. The obvious way to increase quality in the league would be simple: invest in better players. Yet the aforementioned decline in TV money now, and potentially long-term, will make that even more difficult to do. Factor in the various local Italian bureaucracies which make building a stadium nearly impossible and Serie A will have to get creative to prevent the league not from declining. One way to do this would not be innovation, but rather looking back to when the league was the most prestigious on the planet. That is, shrink the league to 18 teams.

Why?

1. It wouldn’t be anything new

Serie A has had 20 clubs for three stretches, two of which were brief in the immediate aftermath of World War II. The third began in the 2004-05 campaign, one which has lasted ever since and coincided with Serie A’s decline as the best league in the world.

Serie A has also had 18 clubs three times, first from its founding in 1929 until 1934, then from 1952 to 1967. Finally, the league also had 18 clubs during its golden era, from 1988 to 2004. Interestingly Fiorentina was a partial reason for this expansion due to the Caso Catania controversy and the subsequent protests from Serie B.

What this all means is that while it may feel different and a little strange for newer fans of Serie A to watch the league shrink, the league has had 18 clubs for more time than 20.

2. Higher Quality Calcio

In this season’s installment of Serie A, there is a noticeable gap between the top seven teams and everyone else. Sampdoria is tenth place in the league despite having just 35 points from 28 matches, and every bottom half club is at below-average to horrible. There just aren’t many clashes between bottom-half teams that are interesting to a neutral viewer. I mean who would crazy enough to voluntarily watch Fiorentina play Genoa next weekend if you weren’t already a Viola or Grifone fan?

Cutting down on the number of teams that lack quality is an easy way to raise the level of every match happening. For example, consider this upcoming weekend’s schedule if both Crotone and Parma vanished. In that case, Napoli would play Benevento instead of Crotone playing Napoli and Parma playing Benevento, a match which is the most interesting of the three. By having two less bad teams in the division every year, the average level of play would naturally go up. Another factor to consider is that shrinking to 34 matchdays would also mean more rest for the players, and four fewer midweek matchdays which draw less interest and viewers in the first place.

In fact, an academic paper by professors Raul Caruso, Francesco Addesa, and Marco di Domizio found that Italian viewers were mostly attracted to watch matches of high “aggregate quantity of talent,” and “by matches involving teams battling at the top of the table”. They found that a 1% increase in the combined payrolls of two clubs on TV led to an increase in viewership between .56 and .96 percent.

3. Fewer Matches = More Excitement

Yes, cutting the number of teams would mean less Calcio. In fact, it would mean a lot less Calcio. The number of matches every season would decline from 380 to 306, more than a 19% decrease.

However, it would also mean every match is now 19% more important. Matches that are battles for the title or Champions League would make up a higher percentage of matches, which could draw more viewers into the action.

Take the NFL for example. One thing the American football league gets right is to make every game as important as possible by just having 16 (17 starting next year) regular-season games. Compare this to Major League Baseball, whose 162 regular-season games mean that a fan could 30 games of their favorite teams’ season and not lose much of the overall outcome. With no playoffs, the Serie A by nature places more importance on every match, but it could do even more so by shrinking to 18 clubs and emphasizing every individual match more. Even the best drawing teams in Italy draw just 1/60 of the total population on average, so freshening up the league could have its positives.

Why not?

1. It hurts smaller clubs more

Firstly, shrinking Serie A would mostly hurt smaller clubs. As an American who supports a club that has been safe from relegation for the vast majority of its existence, it's easy to talk about contraction. For supporters of clubs such as Crotone, Benevento, and Spezia, that may not be the case. All three were promoted to Serie A for the first time within the last four seasons, which would have been far more difficult had there been more competition for spots. For any one of those clubs to play against the Milan clubs and Juventus is a massive achievement for the entire city they represent, and when any upsets happen it's a lot of fun.

However, even when Serie A just consisted of 18 clubs, newcomers were not unheard of. Clubs such as Parma, Chievo Verona, and Siena all made their debuts in this period, while others such as Salerntiana returned after decades away. While there has been an influx of newcomers since expansion, an 18 team Serie would not rule out fresh faces in the league.

2. It could still lower revenues

Secondly, all of the TV deals I’ve mentioned above have been agreed upon on the condition that Serie A fulfills the number of matches specified in the contract: that is, enough for 20 clubs. Shrinking the league by two teams, and thus cutting the number of matches by 19%, may naturally lead to a further 19% decline in TV revenue.

This right here is the key reason why I don’t expect Serie A to make this switch anytime soon. It’s too risky. However, I see this as unlikely. The key crux of my argument is that fewer matches will actually lead to more viewership due to every match having more importance and being between higher-quality opposition. There’s a reason why the league isn’t considering expansion to 22 or 24 clubs, as expansion does not necessarily mean more income. The Bundesliga is doing just fine with 18 clubs, as it has larger revenues than Serie A.

Finally, I want to know what you all think. For those who were fans back when Serie A consisted of 18 clubs, do you miss it at all? Or am I too caught up in the past? Let me know in the poll and the comments below.

Poll

Would you prefer that Serie A shrink to 18 clubs?

This poll is closed

  • 55%
    Yes
    (44 votes)
  • 45%
    No
    (36 votes)
80 votes total Vote Now