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Wall Street has a plan to remove racist fans from Italian football

[MILAN] Ivan Gazidis was just months into his role as chief executive officer of AC Milan when he saw two of the Italian football club's Black players subjected to racist chants from rival fans.

Stamping out similar behavior could help make Italian football an international brand as valuable as the English Premier League, said Gazidis, who was installed after US billionaire Paul Singer's Elliott Management bought the team two years ago.

Firms like Elliott buy undervalued assets, fix them up and sell them for a profit. Tackling overt racism in the stands will help increase the worth of the league's broadcast rights as well as the value of the clubs themselves, according to current and prospective investors. Building better stadiums and improving the match-day experience of fans will also enhance the product, Mr Gazidis said.

"This is a huge opportunity if we look ahead five, 10 or 15 years for Italian football," Mr Gazidis said in an interview. "I think it's got the biggest upside of any of the European leagues if we can get things right and we can make changes."

Elliott is just one of the international investors betting that cutting out racist abuse at Italian games will help make the league more valuable. US billionaire Dan Friedkin on Thursday agreed to buy AS Roma, while Serie A is working with an adviser to review bids for a stake in the league, a process that's attracted interest from a range of global private equity firms.

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At least two suitors see taking steps to curb racist game-day behaviour as key to building a media product sellable around the world, according to executives with knowledge of the plans, who asked not to be identified discussing confidential deliberations.

Potential investors have valued Serie A at as much as 13 billion euros (S$21.03 billion), Bloomberg News has reported. Advent International, Bain Capital, Cinven and CVC Capital Partners are among the firms that have expressed interest in buying a minority holding in the league.

Representatives for Advent, Bain, Cinven and CVC declined to comment.

For decades, Black football superstars such as George Weah, Paul Pogba and Samuel Eto'o have plied their trade in Italy. Yet there were at least 20 major cases of anti-Black racism in Italian football — including monkey chants by fans — since the start of 2019, according to the Fare network, which fights discrimination in the sport. That's the most of any major European league.

Serie A's 20 clubs penned an open letter in November acknowledging the problem.

"Images of players being racially abused in Italian football have been viewed and discussed all around the world this season and that shames us all," the teams wrote in the letter. "We can no longer stay silent on this issue or wait for it to magically disappear."

For the last five months, Serie A has been working with UNAR, Italy's anti-racism agency, to develop a "strategy that will be implemented concretely in the 2020/2021 season", a spokesperson for the league said in an e-mail. Serie A has also created an office specifically to combat all forms of discrimination, he said.

It was in April last year that Mr Gazidis witnessed midfielders Tiemoue Bakayoko and Franck Kessie taunted with racist chants by SS Lazio fans. The executive said the episode was like a "slap across the face" and served as a "wake-up call", leading AC Milan to file a complaint with the league.

The poor shape of some stadiums can also lead to "a culture of disrespect", said Mr Gazidis, who used to run Arsenal Football Club. English football's top division transformed from a hotbed of hooliganism in the 1980s into Europe's most lucrative today, in part by investments in infrastructure and changes to match-day rules that drew in families, he said. By comparison, just 61 per cent of seats are filled during Serie A games, the lowest of any major European league, Deloitte wrote in a June report.

To be sure, it's not just Italy where racist abuse of Black players has been a problem, with examples of racism evident across football leagues in England, Spain, and Germany in recent seasons.

Mr Gazidis recently invited Paul Elliott, chair of the English Football Association's Inclusion Advisory Board, to be part of a working group tackling the issue in Italian football. Elliott held workshops with officials from clubs including Juventus FC, Roma and Inter Milan in which he talked about the racism he faced as the first Black English defender to play for AC Pisa in the 1980s and to help find solutions.

"Italy has lost out, and that's the point ultimately. If you look at the value of their clubs, the value of their brands, the value of the commercial rights. They've lost out socially; they've lost out economically," Mr Elliott said. He recommends zero-tolerance rules ranging from banning supporters from stadiums after a single instance of racist behavior, to fines, point deductions and expulsion for teams with repeat offences.

One important ingredient in turning around Serie A will be drawing higher offers for its television rights. England's top league made about 3.5 billion euros from broadcasting rights in the 2018-2019 season compared with around 1.5 billion euros in Italy, according to Deloitte.

Sky Italia, the country's dominant sports broadcaster, said in a statement it's working to educate people about racism and denounce any form of racial injustice. With strong engagement on this topic, sports will be more attractive, said the company, which is controlled by Comcast Corp.

Serie A has more commercial potential but its international brand is "certainly tainted by racism", said Yannick Ramcke, who oversees the streaming business at Onefootball, a digital platform that shows games from Italy's third division. As the league tries to sustain revenue growth amid a saturated domestic market, redefining its perception overseas will contribute to boosting its business, he said.

"What people are seeing is a very a big opportunity, because of the underlying strength of football in Italy sitting next to its underdevelopment," Mr Gazidis said. "It's all there waiting to happen, and I think that the international investors that are coming into Italian football see these possibilities very clearly."

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