Sunday, July 09, 2006

A Soccer Scandal Made for Television

A Soccer Scandal Made for Television - New York Times: "It's a scandal born of two elements certain to be on display in today's championship game: the competitor's drive to win and the power of television to shape commerce and culture.

The scandal emerged from within the Italian leagues, where a handful of dominant teams are accused of trying to rig the national sport in order to ensure victory and, as a consequence, command a disproportionate share of television revenues. Indictments by prosecutors in Naples, based in part on thousands of wiretapped conversations, depict executives of the nation's most successful teams bullying and bribing referees to guarantee victory in key matches.

While Berlusconi pauperized opponents with one hand, however, he enriched them — or some of them — with the other. He began using his private television company, Mediaset, to bring big money into the game. In the past, Italian soccer had rarely been seen on TV. The state-owned television network, worried that fans might not fill stadiums if they were able to watch matches at home, generally showed only one match per week — and only the second half of that.

Berlusconi's network changed everything, eventually televising several matches a week. Stadiums indeed became emptier. But through rising television revenues, soccer was transformed into one of Italy's biggest businesses, worth about $6 billion a year. And Italian soccer teams now depend more on television revenue than teams in any other major European country. Television led to a winner-take-all economy. Indeed, a group of young Italian economists published a series of economic studies of Italian soccer on the Web site La Voce that more or less predicted the current disaster.

Because networks are almost exclusively interested in broadcasting the matches of big-city teams with national followings (like Turin, Milan and Rome), smaller teams (Como, Brescia and Parma) have received a much smaller piece of the pie. With less revenue from television, these smaller teams have less money available to compete for star players.

In response to the scandal, there is talk of punishing four teams, including A.C. Milan, by demoting them to the minor leagues. Several important sports figures risk going to jail for their actions and 26 are under indictment. But whether any of this will lead to genuine change is far from certain."
Alexander Stille is the author of "The Sack of Rome: How a Beautiful European Country With a Fabled History and a Storied Culture Was Taken Over by a Man Named Silvio Berlusconi."

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