For a long time, the transnational phenomenon of multi-club ownership in soccer seemed to have spared Italy from the eyes of foreign (and domestic) investors.
However, since 2018, several takeovers have taken place in Italian soccer, with half of the 20 of Italy’s top-flight soccer league Serie A clubs now owned by foreign – mostly North American – investors.
Nevertheless, the trend has also affected domestic businessmen. The most notable case was Claudio Lotito’s ownership of Serie A giants SS Lazio and second-tier Serie B Salernitana.
When in August the latter got promoted to top-flight, the Italian Soccer Federation (FIGC) forced president Lotito to hastily sell his share in Salernitana, to ensure the integrity and the fairness of the league.
Last September – with an unprecedented move – the FIGC banned multiple ownerships in Italian professional soccer, to avoid similar cases in the future.
I sat down with sports lawyer Cesare Di Cintio to analyze the landscape of multi-club ownership in Italy, the short-term consequence of the ban on investments, the possible repercussions on the academies, and long-term legislative implications on the future of Italian soccer.
Is the ban a positive or negative move for Italian soccer?
Positive and far-sighted. The rule aims at preserving competitive fairness and avoiding wrongdoings, which could harness sports competitions.
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About president Claudio Lotito’s hasty blind trust to sell Salernitana: how was it possible for FIGC to allow Lotito to keep the Salernitana up until 30 days before the start of the Serie A?
I think we should stress that the current FIGC governance inherited some outdated rules about multi-club ownership. This is what happened in the case of Salernitana. Only when the club got promoted to Serie A the FIGC had to find a way to deal with the situation, in compliance with the existing rules. I think that the blind trust solution has allowed the league to go on fairly and facilitated the sale of the club.
Italy’s third-tier Serie C president Francesco Ghirelli accused multi-club ownership of “blocking the development of reserve teams and young players”. Do you agree with him?
The “reserve teams” project wanted to allow junior players to gain experience on a more competitive level before debuting for the first team, but in Italy, the only successful example was the one carried out by Juventus with the U23.
I think the issue was more an economic one: big clubs lack the financial, technical, and managerial resources to set up a second team in another league, mainly because of the financial difficulties experienced during the pandemic.
Are there other cases of multi-club ownership in Italian professional soccer?
Lotito’s Lazio and Salernitana example was not the only one. FIGC’s new ban prevents owners from being able to have not only a controlling but also a minority share in multiple professional clubs in the first three tiers of Italian soccer.
The purpose was to encourage the other two existing cases to quickly comply with the new rule. The first is the De Laurentiis family – which involves Serie A giant SSC Naples and Serie C SSC Bari – and the second is Maurizio Setti, owner of Serie A Hellas Verona and Serie C side Mantova. They both have until the beginning of the 2024/2025 season to decide which club they want to keep.
The businessmen involved aren’t too happy. Last December, SSC Bari president Luigi De Laurentiis filed an appeal against the new rule, stating that it is unfair to impose a strict time limit on those who invested large sums in Italian soccer. What is your opinion on the appeal? Does it stand any chance in court?
This is an unprecedented situation. And it is very difficult to anticipate the outcome, given that we are still unable to check in detail the content of the appeal. Quite frankly, it is also impossible to talk about the possible consequences on the whole soccer legislation.
Considering the importance of the issue and the fact that we are faced with a legislative novelty, I think we should expect a long trial.
Nowadays, many investment groups have multi-club ownership across different nations. Do you think that the new ban could be detrimental for foreign entrepreneurs and discourage potential investment in Italian soccer?
Hardly. Only recently, Serie A club CFC Genoa were purchased by U.S. investment fund 777 Partners. Last August, American businessman Joe Tacopina took over SPAL in Serie B, and the same destiny was shared by Serie C Como, bought by the Hartono brothers. Many of Serie A’s 20 clubs are now majority foreign-owned, meaning that Italian soccer is a business opportunity for foreign entrepreneurs.
And with reason: soccer clubs are subject to high growth prospects, given the unrivaled visibility of the sport in the country, and with lucrative broadcasting rights representing an ever-growing asset worth the investment.