Serie A hopes there's plenty to celebrate with holiday games
For a competition that has always held holidays as sacrosanct, Serie A is taking a big break from tradition this week.
Following the successful example of the English Premier League, the Italian league will play Serie A and Italian Cup matches over four of the next five days.
"The concept is simple. Professional soccer is an entertainment product and offering it during the holiday period is a great opportunity for those in charge," AS Roma general manager Mauro Baldissoni said.
"The Premier League has shown that it works to offer this product during the holidays — both in terms of stadium attendance and international TV viewership."
The opening two matches of the week will be held in the country's two biggest stadiums: Lazio hosts Fiorentina in Rome's Stadio Olimpico on Tuesday in the Italian Cup quarterfinals, then it's a Milan derby at the San Siro in another quarterfinal a day later.
On Friday, in Serie A, league leader Napoli visits Crotone. On Saturday, there's a slate of nine league matches, beginning at 12:30pm local time with Fiorentina vs AC Milan, and concluding with evening matches featuring Inter Milan hosting Lazio and Juventus visiting Hellas Verona.
More Cup matches are scheduled for January 2 and 3, then Serie A again on January 5 and 6.
Veteran coach Fabio Capello believes the scheduling is already problematic because of too many night matches — starting with the week's first game, Lazio-Fiorentina, at 9pm local time.
"It's too late," Capello told Italian daily La Repubblica. "That means leaving the stadium at midnight in the cold with many people having to work the next day. If you're going to play on a holiday, you've got to start earlier and help the fans out."
In the past, Serie A's winter break began before Christmas and lasted until after January 6, which is Epiphany, a major Catholic feast day and the end of the holiday period in Italy.
This season, the break will be from January 7-20.
"It doesn't change much for the players," Baldissoni said. "They'll still have a break in January."
Still, the Italian schedule has not gone quite as far as the EPL, which has no break at all and games on December 26, 27, 28, 30 and 31, plus January 1, 2, 3 and 4 — meaning teams will play three matches in little more than a week.
"In England, the last match on Boxing Day (Tuesday) starts in late afternoon. It would be good not to just copy but also improve on the copied product," Capello said.
But for a league struggling with attendance, fan violence and racism, Italy is providing an opportunity for families to go to the stadium while school is on break.
An average of 22,177 fans attended Serie A matches last season, ranking the league fourth in Europe behind the Bundesliga, English Premier League, and La Liga.
The German, Spanish, and French leagues still won't play during the last week of the year. But other sports like the National Basketball Association and the National Football League do.
"Not taking advantage of this period and leaving it to other leagues means losing competitively in the international market so we've decided to get involved during this period," Baldissoni said.
It's a timely move, considering the Italian game is in dire need of a boost after the Azzurri's failure to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in six decades.
"It's a way to try and boost the brand value of Serie A," Baldissoni said.
It also coincides with the most competitive Serie A in years. The top four clubs — Napoli, six-time defending champion Juventus, Inter and Roma — are within seven points of each other.
Serie A recently made a switch and assigned its international TV rights for the next three seasons to IMG for 370 million euros (US$440 million) per season, nearly double the value of the previous deal with MP and Silva.
Next month, the league is planning to assign a new deal for its much more lucrative domestic rights with a price tag expected to exceed 1 billion euros.
So feedback on attendance, TV viewership, and advertising for the holiday games will be highly scrutinized.
"It's an experiment," Baldissoni said. "Let's see if it works here like it does in England."