Easter Sunday, 1478. Lorenzo Medici clutches his throat as the blood drips down onto his ruffled collar. In front of the altar of Florence’s Duomo, the cathedral which his grandfather financed, brother Giuliano lays motionless and still. The Pazzi Conspiracy against the rule of the banking family would ultimately fail, but in its wake, the city was in chaos. After the conspirators were captured, Florence would finally see a new dawn.
Some 500 years after the political pandemonium along the Arno River, Famous filmmaker Mario Cecchi Gori brought the club back to prominence. But after his death in 1993, his son Vittorio became club’s new CEO, and his mismanagement of funds led Fiorentina to liquidation.
After firing manager Luigi Radice for making a comment towards his actress wife, Fiorentina plummeted in the standings, and were relegated on the last day of the 1992/93 season. Their bankruptcy in 2001 forced the club into the lower leagues of Italian football. Just the season earlier, Gabriel Batistuta would’ve brought the Scudetto back to the city if not for a lengthy mid-season injury absence.
Fiorentina suffered a fate not unlike the Medicis, in a “conspiracy” manifested by ownership that was its own worst enemy.
The Della Valle Family
Florence is one of the fashion capitals in the world thanks to its lineage in textiles and aesthetics. Of the various families which have made their fortune in the local industry, the Della Valle family grew as shoemakers in the 1920s, with Diego, the eldest son, propelling the family business.
At first using then-Ferrari chairman Luca Di Montezemolo to wear driving loafers now called Tod’s, the brand boomed. Following the exposure – Di Montezemolo was often seen during televised Juventus matches – the Della Valle fortunes grew, and younger brother Andrea came along for the ride.
After the Della Valles resurrected their hometown club in 2001, Fiorentina have had contrasting results, proportionate to the capital invested into the squad. With 2006 World Cup winner Luca Toni, Fiorentina secured Champions League qualification for several seasons, closing the decade with a push in the tournament that would’ve seen them beat the eventual finalists, Bayern Munich, if not for an incorrectly given offside goal.
Following the resignation of Cesare Prandelli in 2010, La Viola struggled to maintain parity with the larger market clubs. When the city and region refused their stadium proposal, the Della Valles became reluctant to invest heavy sums back into the club. Andrea refused to reinvest the sales of Felipe Melo and Giampaolo Pazzini to Juventus and Sampdoria respectively, and stepped down as president. It was a bad omen that foreshadowed the years to come.
The situation has largely remained the same since. Talks failed to extend captain Gonzalo Rodríguez’s contract in 2017, and then prized prodigy Federico Bernardeschi was sold to Juventus, just after fan favourite Borja Valero was sold to Internazionale. While Nikola Kalinić’s sale was less controversial, offensive creator Josep Iličić was subsequently sold to Atalanta. Although these sales brought in just over €70m, the Della Valles seemed content to buy prospects and mediocrity. The interest to compete in European competition had seemingly been lost.
In Florence, the papers are filled with rumours about the sale of the club. Some names mentioned include a group led by businessman Giulio Galazzi, an American consortium, a group from China, another from Mexico, and even Red Bull – but the Della Valles have kept a firm grip on the club thus far. There are several reasons why.
A beacon of hope was lit in 2016 as plans started to form around a proposal to move Fiorentina out of the Stadio Artemio Franchi. When a stadium is leased from the city – as the Artemio Franchi is – there is little incentive for the tenant club to invest in the grounds. Such has been the case since 1931.
Built during Benito Mussolini’s reign, it has gone almost entirely unchanged. Walking in the entrance past the crippled iron gate, the lack of amenities is immediately noted if accustomed to modern stadia. The bathrooms are industrial, the concessions few, and most seating options are distant and obstructed by plexiglass. For contrast, the Metlife Stadium in New Jersey, which was built in 2010, has four “Jumbotrons” – massive screens for watching live action and replays. At the Franchi, there is just one screen, and it only shows the score and time.
By 2017, a site and rendering had been developed, with the Mercafir area being chosen as the prime spot. Located next to Peretola Airport and the A11 highway, the industrial zone has pre-existing infrastructure for mass transportation, and would be aided by Florence’s new monorail, the Tramvia.
Along with a 40,000-seater stadium, the proposal also included a training centre, 200-bed hotel, a 7.7-hectare fan village, public parking, and a new train station. Ambitious stadium projects in the past have shown us that such grandeur plans are often intentionally oversold. This is a negotiation tactic for the club to appear to be compromising at approval meetings but may have never truly had intentions to build a hotel and fan village for instance. Comparisons could be drawn with Roma’s original stadium plans, which included several different skyscrapers, which have since been removed in arbitration.
While the Della Valles first mentioned the new stadium over a decade ago, its projected cost of €450m is steep for the city, even if it was paid through private funding and municipal bonds. However, such a move would give Florence one of the premier sporting venues in Italy and would increase its marketability to major international investment.
As seen across the board in England and the United States, when clubs privately own their stadiums, their value increases tenfold. Even if all other entities were denied, the stadium would still be able to collect increased revenue from corporate boxes and official shops within. The Della Valles – or future owners – would have an investment turning profit 365 days a year.
Dario Nardella, the current mayor, estimates that the stadium could be done by 2023 for the city with a metropolitan area over half a million people. Preliminary site testing at Mercafir began in November 2018.
In early April 2019, Italy’s Deputy Prime Minster, Matteo Salvini, spurred on the project – and all Italian stadiums – outlining new measures that should help clubs in their initiatives: “As a minister I’m tired of committing thousands and thousands of women and men in uniform every Sunday to check what happens outside and inside stadia using old systems, without cameras, without exits or emergency access points. We’re working on a law that will make it quicker, easier and less expensive to build new sports facilities because families have the right to go and see a game in peace.”
The unveiling of the project has led to much enthusiasm – although there remains uncertainty as to how it will be financed – and the current plans of the Della Valle family to sell the club could potentially see the project postponed, or indeed totally abandoned. Any new owners will need to buy into the stadium and factor in the risk that will come along with trying to build one in Italy. That in itself might deter any potential suitors from expressing any concrete interest.
The soon-to-be-expiring kit sponsor deal with Le Coq Sportif is poor. While €3m euros per season is in line with its average place in the league, the number itself is part of a bigger picture that shows Fiorentina’s inability to contract major international manufacturers. The blame cannot be totally attributed to the marketing team, as kit deals are factored on a combination of global outreach, consistent success, and desirability of players. In other words, they are intangibles, but in the past decade, Fiorentina have not created the demand to warrant more.
The sponsorship deal is another matter, though, and one which does fall entirely on the marketing team. This season, Fiorentina failed to find a shirt sponsor, eventually choosing to place non-profit Save The Children on its front. Without a corporate entity, Fiorentina failed to accumulate what could have been €5m per season. This money could have been used for one or two more prospects, improvements in staff, or contract renewals. In the era of Financial Fair Play, every euro counts.
At its worst, the poor deals between the kit manufacturer and shirt sponsor indicate potential and possibility. Not being held to a long-term, low-paying contract would benefit a club that could soon be changing spending policies and brand growth.
The team itself has become heavily valued this season. Jordan Veretout and Germán Pezzella were both thrifty acquisitions who, if sold, would easily double their original purchase prices. Meanwhile, Alban Lafont and Nikola Milenković, who are 20 and 21-years-old respectively, have emerged as two of the league’s top young players.
Federico Chiesa symbolises a Renaissance for Fiorentina, and has become perhaps the most coveted Italian player since the brilliance of Francesco Totti and Alessandro Del Piero. Projected values now hover above €60m, and he is likely to become the most expensive Italian player of all-time. But if Chiesa is kept this summer, however unlikely that may appear, he would bring massive awareness to his hometown club. His star power could be the catalyst for an investor that comes to Florence with a project – a player to build around.
The advancing of the stadium project would move Fiorentina from a boutique club into the top 20 of European football. With the promise of year-round revenue, brand growth correlating with international sponsors, and a valuable young squad, Fiorentina is one the most attractive clubs for a major investor. If the correct decisions are made and a few key assets are held onto, despite the immediate troubles, the potential of the club could manifest itself into something much bigger if the right investor is found.
By Wayne Girard @WayneinRome