The Serie A title race will come down to the final match day this weekend, with eternal rivals AC Milan and Inter Milan separated by just two points. After Juventus won nine consecutive Scudetti from 2011 to 2020, a dramatic ending to the season is a welcome turn of events. AC Milan is hoping to win their first Serie A title since 2011, while Inter are seeking their second successive league championship.
CBS Sports, via its streaming service Paramount+, will have a full afternoon of coverage on Sunday, broken up into two parts in order to focus on both the title race and relegation battle: Inter Milan vs. Sampdoria and Sassuolo v.s AC Milan will both be at 12 p.m. ET, and Venezia vs. Cagliari and Salernitana vs. Udinese begin at 3 p.m. ET, with relegation or Serie A survival on the line.
If AC Milan are able to win their 19th Scudetto, the legendary club’s return to glory would coincide with the resurgence of Serie A coverage in the United States. CBS acquired the league’s broadcast rights from ESPN in 2021 in a reported three-year deal worth $75 million per season. The acquisition came after CBS had secured the rights to the UEFA Champions League and Europa League in 2020. In hindsight, the network’s acquisition of Serie A was both savvy and opportunistic, as a convergence of factors were developing for Serie A that added value to the product.
Once maligned as overly defensive and boring, the style of Italian football has gradually become more modern. Old school tactics have been replaced by new attacking ideologies that led to close to three goals per game during the 2021-22 season. The Italian national team won Euro 2020 last summer, though that triumph will soon be overshadowed by the nation’s second consecutive missed World Cup.
For CBS, Serie A provided new content opportunities and a chance for the network to claim its own European domestic league property beyond the continental competitions. In talking to the CBS Serie A crew, there’s a sense that they’ve acquired a sleeping giant — not one that will compete with the audience pull of the Premier League, but a competition with all of the elements to become increasingly popular in the United States.
Serie A was accessible while with ESPN, but the league would benefit from a U.S. broadcast partner who could turn Serie A into a more complete product, with storytelling, boots on the ground coverage, and a dose of personality — much like what NBC has done to increase the popularity of the Premier League.
CBS has utilized an established and recognizable tone across its European football properties, with some tweaks to that strategy for Serie A. The network has taken some risks with their talent selection, combining seasoned professionals with some analysts who had little to no prior television experience. CBS has also placed a deliberate emphasis on social media, with a distinct style to their creative that has become a staple of their strategy.
Serie A needed a refresh. It’s a league that was founded in 1898 and its reputation has been damaged in the modern era by match-fixing scandals, corruption and defensive football. Italian clubs have continued to underperform in the Champions League, and Juventus’ Serie A domestic dominance didn’t help, either.
However, the end of Juve’s reign has presented an opportunity for CBS. Title races are great for ratings, and if Serie A clubs can elevate their play in Europe’s top two continental competitions, CBS will naturally reap the rewards.
CBS executive producer and senior creative director Pete Radovich calls the general tone of a studio football broadcast “a vibe.” A mistake-free show is never the objective, which is very different from what Radovich was used to early in his career.
“I’m a big believer that what our vibe is off camera will translate on camera,” Radovich said. “And when I first started working in sports television, I was shocked by how intense the environment was behind the scenes, in meetings, days before games, the week of the game. It seemed like I was missing something. ‘Are we saving lives?’ I just didn’t understand what was going on. Why things were so intense. I get it, it’s live television. But if you know what you’re doing you can react accordingly.”
That style of man-management will be key, as Radovich leads a young group of broadcasters who will be expected to elevate Serie A’s awareness in the U.S. But Radovich said he isn’t obsessing over ratings and numbers. His priority is “authentic coverage of the league” and he’ll judge the on-air talent based on their potential.
“I told our group from day one, there’s always going to be ‘how do we get better?’”, said Radovich. “We will never be on cruise control. We might be satisfied, have a great show with great reviews, everyone thought that was hilarious. We have a viral video, all that — great. Now how do we do it again, but better? So that’s kind of our measure, really.”
Meanwhile, building confidence and rapport among his studio team are just as important as attracting the legacy Serie A fans, and eventually, casual viewers.
Matteo Bonetti was previously a lead Serie A analyst for both beIN Sports and ESPN. He’s joined in the booth by play-by-play commentator Andres Cordero, who called Serie A matches with Bonetti when they both worked at beIN. Serie A studio host Poppy Miller and analysts Mike Grella and Marco Messina, plus guest analyst and former Italy striker Christian Vieri, make up the rest of the match day team. Grella is another former footballer who viewers routinely see at the tactics board on the weekends.
“I’ll be totally honest, I’ve never even said this publicly: this is the first time in my 10 years of being in this industry where I genuinely have fun on television,” Bonetti said. That sentiment was more or less shared by his colleagues, who credited Radovich with creating a work culture that’s tailored to each individual’s strengths.
“I think it’s the perfect mix of football and fun, honestly,” added Miller. “If you’re a die-hard calcio fan, hopefully you enjoy it. But if you’re a casual fan that just enjoys watching soccer, then it’s also a great show.”
“The people in this group right now are living their dream jobs,” said Cordero. “And I think that comes across in the fun that they’re having on air.”
Messina is the studio show’s biggest personality and, like Grella, a newcomer to traditional television. The Brooklyn-born Messina is the co-founder of Italian Football TV (IFTV), a Serie A-focused YouTube show and podcast that gained a following as a rare independent English-language platform for calcio coverage, before CBS became the U.S. rights holder. Tapping into IFTV’s pre-existing audience was a smart move by the broadcaster.
Rounding out the team, and further showing the network’s social media interest, are Aaron West and Tosin Makinde, who are regular content creators for CBS’ European football coverage, and Serie A contributor Christine Cupo.
At first, Messina thought that he had to “talk proper” and act a certain way on the set. He said that the transition from IFTV to television was made much easier after a brief conversation with Radovich.
“I remember Pete (Radovich) came up to me and was like, ‘Marco, you have this idea in your head of what TV is supposed to be,” said Messina. “‘That’s not what we want. We want Marco from Brooklyn. Be who you are.’”
Grella, who played in MLS for the New York Red Bulls and the Columbus Crew, also had stints with clubs in the Championship, including Leeds United. Like Bonetti and Messina, Grella was also shaped by the culture of Serie A.
“It’s the only league I watched from a really young age,” he said. “It’s how I learned how to speak Italian. It’s how I learned how to interpret games. It’s how I fell in love with the game. Every Sunday we’d watch Serie A games and then we’d sit with my three uncles and just argue for hours about different things in Serie A. I was in training for this job since I was five or six years old.”
The debates that take place between Bonetti, Grella and Messina on live television are opinionated, with a noticeable tinge of Italian-American banter. It’s an eclectic mix of voices who are suited to cover the fashion, players, and culture of Serie A. And conceivably, over time, they can make the league less niche and more mainstream in the U.S.
Who wore it better @Bonetti or @IFTVMarco? 🤔 pic.twitter.com/PoDmvBo1jF
— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) May 9, 2022
But for now, CBS’ target audience is clear.
“We’re producing our coverage for the invested fan, for the hardcore fan, Radovich said. “And I think for Serie A, we’ve clearly done that by bringing in people who are very close to the league, who know the league. We’re not going to sell the league to non-Serie A fans.”
According to data provided by CBS, Serie A matchday streaming minutes on Paramount+ grew 38 percent in the second half of the season, the same period in which eight of the top 10 most-streamed Serie A and Coppa Italia matches took place. Viewers are beginning to tune in on a regular basis, as well. The network disclosed that over 50 percent of Serie A attributed users watched 10 or more match days during the 2021-2022 season.
In the 1990s, Serie A was arguably the most glamorous European league. AC Milan’s 1991-1993 team, dubbed “The Invincibles” and led by Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi, Marco van Basten, Frank Rijkaard and Ruud Gullit, won 58 straight games, including an undefeated Serie A season in 1991-1992. They reached three consecutive European Cup finals. Italy was once the home to the world’s best players, like Diego Maradona, George Weah, Zinedine Zidane, Brazil’s Ronaldo, Michel Platini, and countless others.
And yet, even then, Serie A was a blip on the radar in the U.S.
“My experience of watching (Serie A) in the ‘90s was impossible,” said Bonetti, whose grandfather was vice president of AC Milan in the early ‘70s. “There was no coverage. There was no media around the league here in the States. Only really in the 21st century has it actually become accessible, and I think that’s been the biggest evolution of Serie A. Every single three-year stretch it gets more and more accessible and the coverage gets more cohesive and more well rounded. I feel like, in terms of the league’s coverage in the States, it has been this meteoric rise that, now with CBS, it keeps going up and up.”
For six weeks in 2022, Messina traveled throughout Italy with a small production team. He sampled the culture — one that he has long been familiar with from afar. He was pitchside in early March when AC Milan defeated Napoli 1-0 in Naples in a crucial top-of-the table clash, witness to the momentum that has carried the Rossoneri to the brink of their 19th Scudetto.
Interviews with Roma forward Tammy Abraham and an exclusive with manager Jose Mourhino were content highlights for CBS.
“It was one of the best six weeks of my entire life,” Messina said. “I almost can’t believe that it happened. And I feel like it really showed that, for me, Italy is the most beautiful country in the world. I know we could debate you know, Premier League, La Liga football wise, but when you talk about the beauty of a country, Italy is undoubtedly the best in my opinion. And I feel like we were able to show that off.”
Messina referred to Italy’s culture and geography as Serie A’s “X factor,” a characteristic that he believes has not been appreciated enough by previous U.S. rights holders. With Messina on location in Italy, CBS leaned heavily on the Italian way of life, with Radovich producing film-like teasers that accentuated the country’s rich history. That style, Radovich said, is his preferred creative approach to video, and the teasers are the favorite part of his job as creative director.
The Madonnina means so much to millions around the world. But on this day, in this city, it means so much more.
The Religion of Calcio as told by @Kate_Abdo 🌟🇮🇹 pic.twitter.com/pQ2BlroT25
— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) February 5, 2022
“You’ll never see special effects in an open that I’m producing,” he said. “You’ll never see crazy graphics and super quick cuts, and any kind of, for lack of a better word, gimmicks. It’s all pretty documentary-style, very vérité. Straight cuts and storytelling. We spend a lot of time on the music. We spend a lot of time on the words and the story, and as far as the visuals, I always feel like if you have a beautiful visual, why mess with it?”
Radovich affirmed that Serie A is underappreciated in the U.S when asked, so landing an interview with Mourinho felt like a victory for CBS. It was the first interview by an international media outlet that Mourinho had agreed to, since arriving in Roma in 2021. Messina, who has an outgoing and boisterous personality, admitted to being nervous, a rarity for him, before meeting the two-time Champions League-winning manager.
Mourinho was cordial and open. He smiled and spoke to Messina about creating an identity at Roma, and establishing much-needed stability at one of Serie A’s most fanatical clubs. Mourinho’s candor and approachability was a surprise to Messina.
“People from Roma, from the club, were like, ‘Oh, this is Jose Mourinho. If you ask him the wrong thing, this can go bad. Be careful. Don’t use this word,’” Messina recalled. “Honestly, I can’t speak highly enough of him. He was an unbelievable person.”
“Be smart, be intelligent in the market. Create an identity and stability in the club. Roma has to be successful.” 🐺
Jose Mourinho tells @IFTVMarco that @ASRomaEN are the club of the people and reveals the story behind his now iconic Vespa. 🏍️ pic.twitter.com/VcnhBoiDb5
— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) April 7, 2022
After Italy won Euro 2020 last summer, it felt as if Italian football was in the midst of a marked turnaround after failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Antonio Conte’s Inter Milan side then broke Juventus’ stranglehold on Italian club football, and a new era officially began in Serie A.
But in March, when Italy were eliminated from qualifying for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, calls for a massive revamp of the country’s most popular sport dominated the discourse yet again.
That shouldn’t have a major effect on Serie A, the CBS crew believes, with Bonetti saying that the prospect of Italy’s elimination damaging Serie A is “overblown.”
Cordero, who referred to Serie A as “an Ayahuasca trip at times,” with “crazy characters and incredible football”, is hopeful that Serie A will continue its ascendancy within Europe’s elite leagues, and inside American households.
“The Italian domestic league is heading in the right direction, even if the Italian national team needs a major overhaul,” said Cordero. “And so you worry that somebody presses the panic button and changes some of the things that are working and that are making the league competitive and fun. My hope is that that doesn’t happen. The only way I could see it sort of impacting Serie A or the reputation of Serie A is for those who aren’t watching.”
(All photos: CBS)
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