It’s been less than five years since Inter Milan were Jose Mourinho’s Kings of Europe, but in the intervening period, fans of the Nerazzuri have enjoyed some grim times.
However, new ownership, the return of Roberto Mancini and some interesting January transfer window signings (Xherdan Shaqiri and Lukas Podolski will certainly have raised spirits), fans must be hopeful that one of Europe’s sleeping giants may soon wake from its slumber.
It’s just over a year since ambitious Indonesian businessman Erick Thohir bought a 70% stake in the club. Thohir is an apostle of the moneyball strategies of Billy Beane and the power of globalisation and bought Inter with the firm belief that both can help revive not just this grand old institution but Serie A as well.
Thohir is part owner of MLS side DC United where the use of data and analytics is central to all player recruitment decisions, decisions not solely related to matters on the pitch. In an interview with CNN last year, Thohir explained:
When we decide on a player, we do it collectively. We sign on the tactical, financial and commercial side.
The 44-year-old believes that the approach has worked well for the US franchise and can be transferred successfully to Inter. It’s not dogma. The approach is more to inform decisions and reduce risk, insists Thohir, and it is thinking that could prove crucially important to a club that is trying to change its culture and come to terms with UEFA’s Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules.
With club transfer and wage spending now pinned to revenues and the financial muscle of rich owners curtailed, commercial growth is the key to competitiveness on the pitch. Thohir believes that there is serious scope to exploit the global commercial potential of Inter, and Serie A more broadly.
He argues that the clubs have to be much more open-minded and modern in their outlook and must learn from the English Premier League and Bundesliga and see Serie A more as a brand. He feels that fans also need to adopt that kind of outlook, rather than seeing commercialism as a sell out.
New thinking is critical if Italian clubs are to generate the kinds of overseas TV revenues, for example, that the English and German leagues can command.
Key to achieving Thohir’s commercial vision is CEO Michael Bolingbroke – who may well be one of the Indonesian magnet’s most important signings. Bolingbroke has a serious commercial and operational pedigree. He was Manchester United’s Chief Operating Officer from 2007 to 2014 and was instrumental in the huge commercial success of Cirque du Soleil prior to his Old Trafford appointment.
Bolingbroke believes that a critical first step for Italian football and for Inter is to invest in their stadia. Juventus are the only club in Italy that owns its own stadium – and has been reaping commercial rewards since its opening.
The other stadia are municipally owned and many of them have not been upgraded since the 1990 World Cup. FFP was actually designed to encourage infrastructural development of this sort – rich owners are not prevented from spending in this area.
For Thohir and Bolingbroke, modern family and media friendly stadia are critical to attracting spectators back to the game in Italy. Inter have the largest average crowds in the league at some 46,000. But even that number looks lost in the cavernous and crumbling San Siro.
Empty seats at Milan and elsewhere are not a good look, doing little for the image of the league. And the fact that said stadia also tend to be dominated by aggressive Ultras only serves to deter families and new fans. These are issues both men feel need to be tackled.
Bolingbroke and his boss also believe cleverer TV exposure in Asian and US markets can drive commercial growth. With that in mind, Thohir would like to see more games being played at 3 pm on the weekends, which would enable a greater number of fans in those markets to watch the games.
Bolingbroke also feels that such kick-off times would benefit Italian fans also – and would be much more attractive to families than evening kick offs.
Thohir and Bolingbroke both speak impressively – but its results on the pitch rather than on the balance sheet that will be needed to convince the club’s hardcore fans. The return of Mancini will certainly have been welcomed. So too will the arrivals of Shaqiri and Podolski, albeit on loan.
But with Inter currently sitting 9th in the table, 6 points off the Champions League places and 18 behind leaders Juventus, the club’s new hierarchy have plenty of convincing still to do.