Saturday 26 May 2018

Pallotta's big ideas to extend Roma empire are taking shape

James Pallotta: ‘You can knock out any team if you play 94 minutes like we did against Barcelona’. Photo: Paolo Bruno/Getty Images
James Pallotta: ‘You can knock out any team if you play 94 minutes like we did against Barcelona’. Photo: Paolo Bruno/Getty Images

Paolo Bandini

Roma's team president still has not decided whether he will attend Tuesday's Champions League semi-final first leg against Liverpool. James Pallotta was born and raised in the US, yet his family roots are Italian. A little scaramanzia - superstition - comes naturally.

Roma are all about the fine details these days. It is almost six years since Pallotta took charge - by coincidence, his appointment was confirmed before a friendly against Liverpool in 2012 - and in that time the club has undergone a cultural shift. Changes wrought by his ownership group have helped to bring the club to its first European Cup semi-final in 34 years.

The Giallorossi are not first to embrace advanced analytics, yet Pallotta's focus was a new departure for Roma. The data team he has nurtured in the US is developing tools that can filter transfer targets by attributes, as well as analysing opponents.

This work is still relatively new, and Pallotta does not suggest that it has yet had a transformative impact. But Roma's commitment to it did aid in the hiring of Monchi (Ramón Rodríguez Verdejo) - renowned for his two decades of success identifying young talent on a modest budget at Sevilla - as sporting director.

Monchi, in turn, brought his own expertise. One of his first Roma signings was Cengiz Under. The 20-year-old Turkey forward has had a very direct impact on this European run, scoring a crucial away goal at Shakhtar Donetsk in the last 16 before providing the assist for Kostas Manolas's winner against Barcelona. That sequence of events, while positive, is hardly a blueprint for long-term success. But Roma know well that they could not expect to beat the La Liga leaders every week.

"In any given year, on any given Wednesday, you can knock out any team if you play 94 minutes like we did against Barcelona," said Pallotta. "But if you want to be a consistent top 10 player in the world, you've got to have the revenues."

On that front, the gulf remains vast. According to Deloitte, Roma's operating revenue (excluding transfer fees and taxes) was €171.8m last season - only the 24th-highest in Europe. Barcelona brought in €648.3m, which placed them third behind Manchester United and Real Madrid. Liverpool were eighth on €424.2m.

Changes off the pitch, then, will have the greatest impact on Roma's ability to compete on it. "We didn't have a commercial team, we didn't have a digital team, we didn't have a TV station, we didn't have a radio station, we didn't have studios," Pallotta said of the situation he inherited. "Now we have those things."

Most visible to fans might be the team's commitment to social media. Pallotta has reflected before now that if he could persuade one per cent of the world's fans to make Roma their second team, willing to spend $5 a year on merchandise, the financial impact would be transformative.

That goal is still a way off but Roma have made strides since hiring Paul Rogers from Liverpool to become their head of digital and social media in 2015. The club's accounts post with an irreverence and self-awareness that is rare in Europe and lends itself to going viral. Roma's following has improved both online and off. Attendances are up by almost 4,000 per game on last year. But all of this pales into insignificance against the ambition to build a new stadium. Roma continue to share the publicly owned Stadio Olimpico with Lazio. A plan for a new venue on the site of a closed racing track was first presented in 2014 but still awaits approval.

Pallotta believes it will soon be forthcoming, and that construction will begin later this year on a project that also features a vast entertainment complex that could boost revenues substantially. He has also warned, however, that if it is not ­rubber-stamped this summer then it may not happen at all. "We spend a million dollars a month on keeping staff and drawings and all of this type of thing on it," he said. "You can't just sit there and think, 'Oh, we're going to get delayed another year.'"

No stadium, most likely, would mean no Pallotta in the long term. His first involvement with Roma was as a minority investor in a consortium. He admits he did not even like football in the beginning, believing it "the worst sport in the world". His past business experiences - he is a shareholder in the NBA's Boston Celtics - nevertheless lent themselves to taking on the president's role.

He has fallen in love with football since. After the win over Barcelona, Pallotta took a dive into a fountain in Rome's Piazza del Popolo. He subsequently made a donation of €230,000 to the city for repair work on another fountain, in front of the Pantheon.

The idea that Roma the football club and Rome the city can best succeed together is one that Pallotta has pushed from day one, much to the annoyance of Lazio supporters. Whether at Anfield, or in front of a TV, he will not be the only one minding his superstitions on Tuesday night.

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