When it rains it pours. If they were superstitious – and some might be, who knows? – Juventus officials would be waiting for theirs September horribilis (“Terrible September”) come to an end. Not that it was great before, but this month the negative spiral has been developing in ever tightening circles.
On the pitch, the club have played five games in Serie A and the UEFA Champions League, drawing twice and losing the other three. They are eighth in Serie A and stuck with zero points in Europe in a group that includes Paris Saint-Germain, Benfica and Maccabi Haifa. Hailed as a sane player-coach as he won four straight titles and guided them to two Champions League finals, Massimiliano Allegri is about as popular as a pair of Crocs at Milan Fashion Week.
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On Friday, they announced record losses of 254 million euros ($245 million) for 2021-22, taking the total over the past three seasons well past half a billion. Season ticket sales were down 27% year over year and games are showing large swaths of empty seats, leading some fans to turn to the hashtag #StadiumVuoto (or “#EmptyStadium”) to express their dissatisfaction with the Association and above all to express , Allegri.
Juve’s problems on the pitch this season are well documented. It’s due to a combination of injuries to key players (or players that Allegri thought should be key players), poor planning, and even worse managerial decisions. They are magnified and exasperated by Allegri’s manner, which too often comes across as superficial and dismissive, if not downright dismissive.
But as weak as Juve have played, the reality is that fourth place is still just four points away and they still control their own destiny in the Champions League.
– Juventus post record losses after zero trophies season
The high losses are also worrying, but no surprise either. It is partly due to the corona pandemic, partly to bad personnel decisions and partly to a risk that did not work out. The owner has pumped around €700m into the club in recent years to smooth the edges and with the reduced wage bill that should go down.
The attendance figures are perhaps most interesting in that they represent a mystery for a club like Juve.
First off, the official numbers aren’t terrible. Yes, they’ve only sold out one game this season, but the average attendance per game is 37,634, which isn’t bad in a stadium that seats around 40,000. The problem is that the number includes season ticket holders — to just over 20,000 — and they’re counted whether they’re there or not. So you end up with empty seats like Juve when they hosted Salernitana on September 11th.
Added to this is Juve’s very public dispute with a number of hardcore fans – club officials testified against those responsible for some ultras groups they have accused of extorting tickets and favors – has meant that some of their most vocal supporters either didn’t show up or didn’t cheer when they showed up, damaging the atmosphere even more.
Sometimes perception can be as important as reality and that’s not what the club needs right now given what’s happening on the pitch and on the balance sheet.
The odd thing is that many thought Juve were immune to this situation when they built the 41,000-seat Juventus Stadium to replace the massive 69,000-seat Stadio Delle Alpi. They figured that a smaller, more compact, state-of-the-art site was almost guaranteed to sell out every week. Many years after they moved there in 2011, that was exactly the case.
It just made sense. Juve are by far the best supported club in Italy – they are No. 1 in 13 of the country’s 20 regions – and they pride themselves on being a national rather than local powerhouse. Romy Gai, Juve’s former CFO, once told me that the founders unwittingly made a brilliant marketing decision when they named the club “Juventus” by avoiding any mention of their hometown of Turin, as it made them feel vulnerable to people from other parts became more welcoming of the country or even the world.
(Gai went so far as to say that there are die-hard Juve supporters who don’t even know they’re from Turin. I suspect he pulled my leg, but who really knows?)
One of the side effects of having a national rather than local fan base is that many fans travel long distances to home games. And if the team isn’t winning or playing well and is surrounded by a cloud of negativity like the one that followed Peanuts’ Pig-Pen, you might just sit at home and watch them on TV — even if you’re already sunk in cost for a season ticket.
Unknowingly, they were not helped by the slogan of former President Giampiero Boniperti, who, in reference to the legendary NFL coach Vince Lombardi, famously said: “Winning is not important, it is the only thing that counts.” So much so that they sewed it onto their jerseys in one season.
The problem is that this kind of messaging works great when you’re successful – as Juve did when they won nine straight Serie A titles from 2011-2020 – but less so when you’re struggling. Some devotees who grew up on the mantra and have seen the years of success are less likely to say, “Hey! We stink now, but now they need me the most, so I go to the game to sing my heart out with my heart. When it’s all about winning, it’s more important than things like rebuilding, weathering the storm or Giving youngsters a chance…well, if you’re not winning, why bother?
Juve’s biggest problem appears to be performance on the pitch. Eventually things either get better (and the sell-out crowds will return) or they don’t, and Allegri is fired and they start over with someone else. To some extent, attendance—and especially positive engagement beyond posting #AllegriOut hashtags—and achievement will always be related. It’s the holy grail of every team, in every sport: lower that correlation (ticket prices and facilities obviously help), make sure people come to see their team play and not just to see their team win.
For a while it looked like Juve had cracked that formula. It’s not so clear now.
Hey, at least September is almost over. Will October bring better times or more of the same?