Before Fiorentina had even kicked a soccer ball once play was allowed to resume in Serie A following the Covid-19 emergency, the club’s loyal supporters assembled outside the Stadio Artemio Franchi alongside bulldozers hired to make an important point.
It may seem illogical that they would be in favor of bulldozing their historic stadium, one that was opened way back in 1931 and contains many unique architectural features installed by original architect Pier Luigi Nervi. Yet after 15 years of the side’s previous owners having promised a new stadium but making no real progress with the city’s council over the issue, the Viola faithful have realized that they must now use their influence to push the issue forward.
With a new U.S.-based owner in charge, there is a much more authentic chance of positive action to ensure that Fiorentina are in a position to win their first trophy since 2001. Many factors give the Tuscan outfit a huge potential for success both on and off the field, not least because Florence is a one-club city that attracts millions of tourists each year. Even neutrals often have one eye on the distinctive purple kits, and their inextricable link with 1990s hero Gabriel Batistuta pushes this team even further to the forefront among casual fans.
The only thing that really holds them back is a lack of revenue from an uncared for and crumbling council-owned stadium, with facilities that are a long way from being fit for purpose for a modern European side. In 2018, the UEFA club licensing benchmark report concluded that only Greece, Norway and Sweden joined Italy in earning less from gate receipts than in the previous financial year, the €198 million figure for Italy minute in comparison with La Liga (€464m), Bundesliga (€488m) and the Premier League
It only takes a look at the dominance of Juventus over the last eight Serie A seasons to see the benefits that a club-owned and modern stadium brings, complete with its attached medical facility, hotel, restaurant and shopping centre.
Since the COVID-19 crisis began, it has also become increasingly apparent that Italian sides are too dependent on income generated by TV rights. The 2019 Deloitte Football Money League report featured no Italian sides inside the top 10 richest clubs since it first began in 1997. In the 2020 edition, none of Europe’s top five richest clubs earned more than 38% of their total income from broadcasting revenue, whereas many Serie A teams are generating around half of their revenue in this manner.
No longer can a wealthy investor simply walk in and immediately splash hundreds of millions of dollars on a playing squad. UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules make it imperative for clubs to generate income in order to balance investment with long-term sustainability.
As founder, CEO and sole owner of Mediacom Communications—the fifth-largest cable television company in the U.S., with over $2 Billion in annual revenues—Fiorentina owner Rocco Commisso knows all too well that passion is not enough for a team to succeed in modern times. His care for the club, as well as the frustration at the bureaucracy that is preventing him from making a significant investment in Fiorentina’s future, is evident.
“The Premier League has demonstrated the critical importance of new stadia and their impact to growing Club revenues,” Commisso explained in an exclusive interview. “Look at Tottenham, Manchester City, and Arsenal. According to the latest Deloitte Top 20 Football Report, the average annual revenues of those Top 20 Clubs is €464 million. Fiorentina is at €93million.
“Without the game-day/commercial activities, revenues that could be generated with a new stadium, Fiorentina could never afford to buy and pay top players to compete at the highest level of European football, while staying in compliance with the UEFA Financial Fair Play rules.
“In this horrible economic crisis, especially in Florence, where tourism has hit a low point, it is incumbent on the Italian and Florence local government to enact laws that enable foreign investors to make infrastructure investments ‘fast, fast, fast.’”
The latter phrase has endeared Commisso to the Florentine public, who are thrilled to finally see some action on their behalf. Yet the enigmatic businessman is being forced to operate with his hands tied behind his back.
“The bureaucracy is killing Italy,” he continued. “With all the permitting and approvals—from start to finish— it could easily take five to ten years to build a new stadium. In fact, in Florence, they have been discussing a new stadium over the past 15 years. No investor has the patience to wait that long. In Rome, for the new AS Roma Stadium, Jim Pallotta has spent six years already with no final approvals on hand. This may be the reason why AS Roma is for sale.”
Indeed, in Rome, the historic Stadio Flaminio—also designed by concrete expert Nervi—is in a state of advanced decay and has been left to rot after rules dictated that it was too architecturally significant to renovate.
“The monuments stadium laws in Italy make no sense,” continued Commisso in response to these paradoxical rules. “The laws are interpreted differently in different cities (i.e. Milano, Bologna, Florence) by local bureaucrats with immense decisional powers.
“In Milano, the San Siro—the cathedral of Italian football—can be taken down totally and replaced with a new stadium, while in Florence, as of today, we cannot even tear down the old, distant curves. If the Franchi cannot be reconstructed meaningfully or replaced entirely, over time it will become a decrepit monument and an eye sore in the beautiful city of Florence.
“In the extreme scenario, assuming the stadium laws are not revised, can Fiorentina still play at the Franchi for the next 100 years? Will the reinforced concrete live that long ? How much money would need to be spent? Who will spend that money? It seems clear to me that at some point the Franchi will be torn down. In my opinion, now is the time.”
There is no doubt that the Stadio Artemio Franchi holds a lot of history within it, and a redevelopment of the stadium, along with some improved access, would serve to honour that history as well as the local businesses who rely on match-going locals for survival. If there is no agreement on the redevelopment limitations, the owner will be forced to look even outside of Florence to build a modern stadium that is fit-for-purpose.
To foreign investors, the Italian approach of “cutting off your nose to spite your face” is utterly nonsensical, yet the very existence of Serie A relies upon men like Rocco Commisso bringing revenue from overseas. That is the only way it could ever hope to be restored to the level that was seen in the halcyon days of Italian football in the 1990s and early 2000s, otherwise it will become as run down and jaded as the Artemio Franchi itself.
Meanwhile, as Fiorentina stand on the edge of greatness, it is unthinkable that the city council and monument stadium laws are the ones holding them back.