The movie producer owner of Italian club Napoli said Europe’s top soccer leagues should scrap relegation and reduce the number of teams.
Aurelio De Laurentiis, whose late uncle Dino De Laurentiis produced Hollywood hits like King Kong, Conan the Barbarian and Serpico, said soccer needs a new model that gives investors greater certainty and reduces demands on players by cutting championships like Italy’s Serie A from 20 to 12 or 14 teams.
“It’s absurd you invest a lot of money and you still risk going back to the second division,” De Laurentiis, 62, said in an interview in London before Napoli’s 4-1 Champions League loss to Chelsea last night. “The second problem is you play too many times. You cannot play three times a week.”
Napoli’s appearance in Europe’s elite competition this season was its first since Diego Maradona starred for the club in the 1980s. De Laurentiis bought the team when it was forced to restart in the third tier after going bankrupt in 2004.
The two-time Italian champion is followed fervently in Naples where streets empty near kickoff as fans gather to watch the Azzurri, or Blues, as the team is known. Even after bankruptcy the club’s San Paolo Stadium often had higher attendances than games played in Serie A.
“We are all thankful to Mr. De Laurentiis because thanks to him we have risen from the ashes of bankruptcy,” said Giuseppe Montanino, 61, a doctor from Casalnuovo di Napoli, a small town near Naples. “He was the only entrepreneur who believed in a team playing in Serie C investing in it his own money.”
De Laurentiis said he knew nothing about soccer when he took over and his approach is founded on experience gained at Filmauro, the production company founded by his father in 1975.
“When I arrived everybody was saying, ‘Mr. De Laurentiis it’s not like that in soccer,’” he explained. “I said, ‘Leave me to do what I want to do. It’s my business. It’s my club. If I want to go and lose money it’s my decision.’”
De Laurentiis said he knows his opinions on restructuring the game would be “unpopular” with many Italian fans. Patrizio Pazzaglia, a Rome-based wealth manager at Banca Leonardo SpA, said the views are more in line with Hollywood than soccer.
“Without promotion and relegation, games are like movies where stories end after two hours,” he said. “In our championship, games are like soap operas, each one is connected to the next.”
Napoli’s sales have grown every year since its return to the top division in 2007. Revenue of 115 million euros ($150 million) in 2011 merited its first inclusion in the list of Europe’s top 20 richest clubs compiled by accountant Deloitte LLP. Last season’s third-place finish was Napoli’s best since Maradona, whose image still hangs in many households in the southern Italian city, led the team to the league title in 1990. It’s currently in fourth place.
Napoli has banked profits for five straight years while building a roster featuring international talent. Players including South American forwards Ezequiel Lavezzi and Edinson Cavani and Slovak midfielder Marek Hamsik have been linked with moves to some of Europe’s top clubs. All three have contracts lasting at least four years and will only leave Napoli if teams “want to be crazy and overpay,” De Laurentiis said.
“I received a lot of offers and requests but I said no because I said, ‘Why must I sell?’” he added “I’m not here just to be a sparring partner, I’m here to compete.”
Napoli is Italy’s fourth most-followed club and benefits from a broadcast deal where teams share income based on a calculation of their fanbase. Television income grew last year to 58.2 million euros from 48.2 million euros. Sponsorship income rose 23 percent to 27.2 million euros because of what De Laurentiis described as an unconventional approach to building the brand.
Nike Inc. (NKE) and Adidas AG (ADS), soccer’s biggest apparel providers, usually pay teams a fee to sell jerseys and other club-branded products. Napoli gets nothing up front from its Italian supplier Macron, though takes 90 percent of all sales, De Laurentiis said. The club also sells 565 branded items from motorbikes to pasta and olive oil and more are in the pipeline.
“There’s a whole organization behind this,” he said. “Everything together becomes a conglomerate of soccer.”