13 October ~ Things are going well for Taranto, down in Puglia, Italy's heel. A mean defence and fast-attacking style sees the rossoblù jostling for top spot with Ternana in the third-level Lega Pro Prima Divisione (the former Serie C1). Off the pitch, the club's progressive approach to marketing and fan relations is beginning to pay off too, thanks in no small part to general manager Mike Hulls, a Londoner who ended up in southern Italy working for club president Enzo D'Addario's car dealer empire. "When he bought the club, D'Addario realised there was no structure or organisation," Hulls explains. "It was my brief to reorganise the club from top to bottom."

Italian lower-league football has been blighted by economic woes and Hulls readily admits that Taranto find it near-impossible to turn a profit. However, the president is an ambitious man, one who wants to see his hometown club up among the game's elite. For now though, it's a question of cautious investment, with promotion to the second tier the next step. According to Hulls: "Objectives are set on ‘how much can we afford to lose?' The economic difference between Lega Pro and Serie B is enormous. In Taranto's specific case we have adopted a number of measures to lower costs without damaging the playing staff. We have an unwritten policy of a salary cap. A number of excellent players haven't signed for us because their demands were too high. Our players know we're ambitious and in Serie B we'll be able to review salaries, but without causing financial difficulties."

Taranto can generally rely on home gates of a few thousand, which isn't bad going at this level, though matchday revenue remains low and buying their Erasmo Iacovone stadium outright from the local council would cost them around €20 million (£17m). Hulls is sympathetic to supporters' resentment of the controversial tessera del tifoso, the ID card introduced by the government last season in an attempt to curb the more troublesome aspects of curva culture.

"There is a general feeling that the fans are getting a raw deal from the authorities," Hulls says. "They have come to accept personalised tickets, reserved places, higher security controls and increased prices. But they don't wish to sign up for a card they consider to be yet another level of security check – to get the card you have to pass a database check via the national police computer system. When the organised supporter clubs campaigned against the tessara, the response was authoritarian, declaring that even to have a season-ticket for home games the fan must sign up for the card. As a result, a club like Taranto, that pre-tessara had 3,000 season-ticket holders, now has just 1,000, and the financial implications are obvious. On the other hand, the number of incidents has decreased and safety is much higher. There is a desperate need for a real review of the project, maintaining the objective but giving the fans and clubs more space to manage the problems."

In Serie D, Ancona have recently included two fan representatives on their board. Could the supporters' trust approach work as an alternative to the traditional ownership model in Italy, particularly in the troubled lower leagues? Hulls has his doubts. "It's difficult. Even without a financial interest, Italian fans feel they own the club and never lack advice for the directors, not always productive and sometimes unreasonable. It's not a good model for management where there is a need for more rationality."

Fans were queuing up earlier this week to buy tickets for last night's crucial game against Ternana (a 1-0 defeat, their first loss this season). Last season the club missed out on promotion at the play-off stage. There's a decent catchment area in this part of the world, despite the nearby presence of Bari and Lecce, two Serie A/B yo-yo perennials. Given that president D'Addario ultimately wants Taranto to be in the Champions League, it looks like Hulls' work has only just begun. Matthew Barker

Comments (6)
Comment by geobra 2011-10-13 13:44:14

On the question of attendances below Serie A, 'La Gazzetta dello Sport' announced today a 'boom' in the numbers attending Serie B matches this season. The evidence? For the first time since 2006-2007, when Juventus were in Serie B, the average attendance is above 6000 - 6502 to be precise - up from 4999 last season. A big increase, but hardly a 'boom', and possibly still lower than the average in League One. The explanation is the arrival, from different directions, of the well-supported Sampdoria and Verona, and the failure of Torino to get out of the division, which has been followed by an exceptional start to the season that has reignited the fervour of their fans. To a lesser degree Padova's good start has helped, as has the arrival of two Campanian teams, Juve Stabia and Nocerina, with passionate supporters. But there are still teams drawing crowds of English non-league proportions.

Comment by Janik 2011-10-13 14:37:03

Hulls has his doubts. "It's difficult. Even without a financial interest, Italian fans feel they own the club and never lack advice for the directors, not always productive and sometimes unreasonable. It's not a good model for management where there is a need for more rationality."

So give them a financial interest. Show them the books, and make it clear what will happen if money is spent when it isn't there (the club folds). Because at the moment that is pricesly the sort of mealy mouthed excuse that people in charge of some English clubs use, without justification, for keeping supporters trusts out.

Comment by FCKarl 2011-10-15 09:17:40

Can it be possible to be a good business manager in that part of Italy? Isn't that the heart of mafia country? (I'm not trying to be jerk here or to play to stereotypes. I'm asking in all seriousness) Is there really a way to honestly, foundationally do business there?

For small club managers:

Aren't there lower level clubs in England and Scotland where locals pitch in financially in ALL SORTS of odd ways -- odd ways that add up -- to bolster the obviously weaker finances of the clubs?

Examples: Auto Repair Shop XYZ underwrites the bill for the season for all the boots for players in the first team. Sporting Goods Store ABC either provides the kit or works the deal with Adidas, Umbro, or Nike. A local tyre shop sponsors the team bus. Hotel 123 in town picks up the bill for all away games lodging. And then it gets interesting. Mr. and Ms. Brown of Timberly Lane operate essentially a B&B (bed and breakfast) with two of the younger players (unmarrieds obviously) as the tenants. Mr. and Mrs. Jones on Maple Street don't host the left back, but they pay one sixth his salary for the year (minus any bonsuses) and get big mention in the programmes and special attention at the club's Christmas bash.

And all of these "little donors" get big splash attention, mention, and print advert space in the club's home match programmes. Photos with club president, team captain, and leading goal scorer. Team mascot helping hawk tyres on a Friday afternoon, etc. Half the players every month at Sporting Goods store ABC signing autographs for patrons for an hour. The other half are at Auto Repair XYZ.

LOTs of little sponsors. Very active and real payback to these "little sponsors" through plugging their businesses and always talking about how civic minded these donor/sponsor individuals are.

Isn't that how it used to work? Can't something like this still work even at the Division 3 levels?

Comment by geobra 2011-10-15 11:45:41

'I'm asking in all seriousness'

'Mafia' is really just a word for organised crime. Taranto is in Puglia, and their version is called 'La Sacra Corona Unita'. But as far as I know (I've never been there) Taranto isn't a particularly violent city.

The truth is that, whatever you call it, there's organised crime everywhere in Italy. Even in hard-working Piemonte, Lombardia and Veneto, whose inhabitants like to think of themselves as more virtuous than those of the 'lazy' south and tend to bury their heads in the sand when the subject of crime in their regions comes up.

Remember that the recent betting scandal first saw the light of day in Cremona, which could never be called a southern city.

Comment by FCKarl 2011-10-16 02:07:35

Grazie, geobra. Si, I am under no illusions about organized crime in Italia. It is not just Napoli, the very southern part of the boot, and Sicilia. Goodness, in all things, when one walks the streets and travels the byways of the Italian nation, sadly, all things seem rooted in impervious corruption. And, no, it does not have to be outright violent or deadly to be, sadly, extremely effective. With the egos of local businessmen, longtime residents, and politicians always so entwined up in public ventures like sport, it is a wonder that somehow sport or calcio (football) survive.

Thus, I would think it downright perilous to be a top employee of such a club as even this one in the third tier. Maybe while things are on the upswing you are safe and don't have to dodge too many 'minefields.' But lookout if things go sour. Right?

Joe McGinniss book (published 1997?) The Miracle of Castel di Sangro comes to mind. If even 70% of what he alleged at the end of that book were true, I am surprised that this book author is among the living.

Maybe Mr. Mike Hulls is keeping a diary while serving for this club? He should. Might make for a very intriguing read.

geobra, I shudder each time there is another whiff of match manipulation or a betting scandal attached to Serie A or B -- but, alas, this does not surprise me no matter what region of Italy or, for that matter, the globe:

It is a small and new story at the moment but little SV Wilhelmshaven in north Germany is again in the news for just this, game manipulation. They are 4 Division level (Regionalliga) Story broke on Friday. Just two years ago in November 2009 an opposing goalkeeper was offered just 1500 Euro to throw a match against this same SV Wilhelmshaven.

Comment by geobra 2011-10-16 09:11:20

When 'The Miracle of Castel di Sangro' was published in Italy, Joe McGinniss was not thanked for throwing light on some of the dark deeds that occur in Italian football. Instead he was accused of being ungrateful for abusing the hospitality that Italy had offered him. (Of course everybody knew that what he had written was true, but that it should be openly admitted, and by a foreigner at that, was taboo). And so we are still, more or less, where we were then. Every end of season there are scores of matches like the one (Bari v Castel di Sangro) that opened his eyes and destroyed his illusions.

No action was ever taken against the two clubs. In fact, the President of Castel di Sangro at that time, Gabriele Gravina, is now a vice-president of the Italian football federation (FIGC).

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