The rising cost of watching football has become a topic of impassioned debate in Italy. As in many other countries, calcio began in the 19th century as a pursuit for the upper and middle classes, but was subsequently claimed by the working classes as a game for the people.
There is no doubting that football has become big business and the pendulum is beginning to swing back once again. Supporters of Italian football may well look at the divergent paths followed in England and Germany, respectively, and ponder where calcio might end up.
The English Premier League has gone for a model of full gentrification; the creation of an entertainment experience with global appeal, underpinned by escalating ticket costs and a strategy focused around maximising television audiences. Ironically, many of the people that attended matches 25 years ago can now only afford to watch through a television subscription or perhaps an illegal stream.
Money has become increasingly influential in Germany too, but steps have been taken to ensure the game remains the possession of people in the stadium. Ticket prices remain at an affordable level, with clubs themselves opting to prioritise their loyal supporters ahead of boosting their bottom line. The fans have fought their own rearguard action too, launching organised protests at unsociable kick-off times designed for TV audiences.
Italian football finds itself at something of a junction, having lost considerable commercial ground to competitors in Spain, England and Germany. The upside of this for normal fans is that ticket prices have, by and large, remained low. Indeed it would have been difficult to justify price increases for the majority of teams, whose council-owned stadiums have seen precious little investment in the last 30 years.
But things appear to be changing at the frontier, with several clubs beginning to develop more sophisticated commercial strategies that will impact fans in the stadiums. Whilst gate receipts and merchandise sales have become of somewhat diminished importance in light of rising television and sponsorship deals, they provide a useful lens to understand the different strategies being followed across Serie A.
The chart below combines data on i) the cost of an entry-level season ticket for each club with in) the cost of purchasing a personalised replica shirt (by no means an essential in Italy!). This is viewed in both ‘cash’ terms (focus on the bars for this), but is also adjusted for the sharp variation in regional incomes in Italy (the green line). So what does it tell us?
- In recent years, Juventus have followed a clear strategy to drive their stadium experience up-market. They chose to build a venue that would not fully cater for demand from their fans, thus creating a sense of exclusivity. This in turn has allowed them to ratchet up prices to become a distinct outlier in cash terms. By contrast, the cost of a Juve replica shirt is in the middle of the Serie A pack; here, they use apply greater restraint as they are competing with the likes of Real Madrid, Barça, PSG and Man City for global revenues.
- A number of smaller clubs have priced their season tickets according to their respective supply and demand positions. For example, Brescia and SPAL have small stadiums that will be guaranteed to sell out for bigger games, allowing them to increase prices to the extent that they appear in the top quartile in cash terms. By contrast, Sassuolo rarely, if ever, sell out and have opted for a low price to entice fans through the gate.
- Inter sold out their entry-level season tickets, so evidently could have charged higher prices. This feels like a conscious decision from the hierarchy to reward the loyalty of their fans in stadium, whilst sekeing to increase revenues in other areas of the business.
- Last season, off the back of a successful season, Napoli increased ticket prices sharply. However, fans felt they were being held to ransom and subsequently voted with their feet. President de Laurentis has learned his lesson and made a u-turn this year, cutting prices from €360 to €269.
- Atalanta remain excellent value for a team at the top end of the table. However, what is not shown here is the increase in prices in other areas of their stadium – notably the newly built Curva Nord. Increasing prices is not an unreasonable move, you might think, given that they have to finance the building work. However, fans reacted with dismay. Unlike de Laurentis, President Percassi responded to the complaints from fans and unwound some of the increases.
- Fiorentina have an interesting strategy; their replica shirt is the most costly on the market at €114, yet this is paired with a very reasonable season ticket cost of €190. It may be that they are capitalising on the city’s tourist economy to maximise revenues from replica shirt sales and pay on the door customers.
One of the hallmarks of Italy as a nation is the persistent economic disparities between north and south. In the north, prices are higher, but incomes are even higher still. Looking at the cost of tickets and shirts as a proportion of the annual average income for the region serves to nuance the picture a bit further;
- Viewed through this lens, Juventus are still at the top of the pile, but become much less of an outlier (due to higher wages in the Piedmont region). A season ticket and shirt will cost about 2.4% of the average annual income.
- Napoli’s reduced ticket prices for the 19/20 season now look much less generous in this light (together with a shirt, they account for about 2.0% of the average income). In fact, had they stuck with the 18/19 price structure they would have been roughly on par with Juve.
- Predictably, the low cash cost of tickets and shirts for Lecce and Cagliari also look less generous when taking account of lower regional incomes. Both clubs move into the top quartile on this basis.
- Outside of the aforementioned clubs and the ‘bargains’ on offer at Sassuolo, Parma and Atalanta, there is remarkably little variation across the other thirteen clubs. It turns out controlling for regional incomes is a great leveller in Italian football.
If you enjoyed this article you might also be interested in my statistical analysis of Parma’s unconventional tactical approach to the 2018/19 season.