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Volume 20 No. 46
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AS Roma strengthens ties to U.S.

A midsummer visit to the United States by Italian soccer club AS Roma started with three exhibition matches for its players and ended with two days of meetings in Disney World for its top executives.

AS Roma drew more than 37,000 for its match against Liverpool at Fenway Park.
AS Roma is the only club in the top Italian league, Serie A, owned by a U.S.-based group, having been purchased in April 2011 by the Raptor Group, a Boston-based financial company run by James Pallotta. The lead investor is Tom DiBenedetto, who owns a minority stake in the Boston Red Sox.

Since the purchase, the new leadership has attempted to re-energize the club’s fan base in Italy and grow its brand globally.

AS Roma CEO Mark Pannes, a former HSBC Holdings banker, called the trip a “successful experience, and an educational one.”

Unlike the majority of the 32 exhibition matches featuring international clubs in North America this summer, AS Roma opted to not have its tour produced by Soccer United Marketing, Major League Soccer’s marketing arm, and CAA. The team drew 74,020 fans for its three-game tour: 22,200 for a match against Polish club Zaglebie Lubin at Wrigley Field, 37,169 against Liverpool at Fenway Park, and 14,651 for a friendly against the El Salvador national team at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J. According to an industry source, revenue for AS Roma from the tour was expected to be in the low seven figures.

The club expressed no regrets over its decision to not utilize the significant marketing and publicity resources of SUM.

“Although we’re still somewhat new to this, we’re comfortable not using a third party,” Pannes said. “It’s not a commentary on MLS, whom we have great respect for. By doing the tour on our own, we can meet our own strategic objectives and deliver to our corporate partners.”

Said MLS Commissioner Don Garber: “Not every club touring here partners with us, and we respect their decision. We will always wish them well because, if they’re successful, it’s good for soccer.”

While AS Roma considered the tour a success, it did not come off without a hitch. Its July 27 match at Red Bull Arena drew only 65 percent capacity. Documents finalizing the deal for the game were signed on July 2, providing a small window for promotion and ticket sales. The event also occurred during a logjam of international friendlies in the East, with Red Bull Arena hosting a French Ligue 1 match the following afternoon and one between the Red Bulls and Tottenham Hotspur four days later.

“We have no regrets because the event came off well and it was a success for us financially,” Pannes said. “But yes, I do have some concerns about oversaturation and whether we should tour when so many other matches are happening around the same time. Like I said, that’s part of the learning process.”

Next summer — which unlike this year will be a year without the Olympics, Euro or World Cup — AS Roma will embark on an extensive tour in Asia, but it will return to North America for matches in the coming years, according to Pannes. The team will train in Orlando during New Year’s week as part of its four-year agreement, signed last March, to become the club in residence at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports complex.

AS Roma chose to produce its own tour, which included a stop at Wrigley Field.
Last week, Pannes, Sean Barror, the managing director of RaptorAccelerator — Raptor Group’s sports and entertainment division — and AS Roma commercial officer Christoph Winterling met in Orlando with Disney officials to discuss the club’s visit to the park. Unlike Chelsea, Disney’s previous club in residence, AS Roma plans on sending its entire starting lineup and hosting fan-friendly events, such as open practices. Vacation packages to visit Disney World and participate in activities with AS Roma will also be sold to fans.

“AS Roma is a renowned football club, but they were interested in an in-depth and authentic relationship,” said Mike Millay, director of sports development at Walt Disney World Resort. “Having their first team actually train at our place each winter is going to be an extraordinary experience for the youth soccer players who compete at Disney, the many U.S.-based Roma fans who will get a more intimate interaction with their favorite players at Disney than anywhere else. We will further expose America’s youth soccer players to world-class European football and expand AS Roma’s brand among U.S. consumers.’’

Pannes came away from the meetings excited by the partnership’s potential.

“The theme of the meeting was, how can we best provide access to soccer fans, but still allow our players and coaches to meet their training goals?” Pannes said. “The end result is that, with our partners at Disney, we’re treating this like a Major League Baseball team does spring training — but we’re going to be even more accessible.”

In Italy, the club has plenty of business to attend to before the start of the Serie A season in late August. Average attendance fell last year from 41,000 to 34,665. The season-ticket base fell from 20,000 to 16,000. “When we took over, the club didn’t even have a season-tickets sales force,” Pannes said.

As of last week, season-ticket sales had increased to 21,000 and premium-seating sales were up “over a million Euros” from last season, according to Pannes.

The club shares Olympic Stadium in Rome with another team, but Lazio hopes to have a new stadium of its own by 2016. AS Roma is also in an exclusive negotiating window with jersey sponsor Wind, an Italian communications company. The current deal earns the club $8 million a year and ends after this season.

Whether or not Wind returns as jersey sponsor, AS Roma is ready to take a more global approach to selling sponsorships.

“Until recently, we felt like more of a domestic club,” Pannes said. “But now we have the deal with Disney, we have this U.S. tour under our belt and we have watched and learned a lot over the last year. It’s time to think bigger.”