Exploiting an untapped gem: Could the city of Venice benefit from selling its football?

‘TGU guest writer, Patrick Graham, studied history in Venice for three months, becoming attached to their local team Venezia FC, recently promoted to Serie B. Whilst there, it struck him that the football club was somewhat anonymous and underutilised in the city’s famed touristic appeal. His own personal enjoyment following the club posed the question of whether the rogueish charm of the match-day experience could be a potential selling point for the city.’

As one sixteenth century English traveller remarked ‘there is no country so much frequented yet so little known by foreigners’ as Venice, an observation which remains remarkably pertinent still today.

This foreign conception of the city constitutes the so called ‘Myth of Venice’; a lagoon of luminous canals and titanic structures, home to a bustling nightlife that continues well into the day, all topped off by the money shot of the Grand Canal, which singles your entry into paradise. In short, Venice is sold as the most beautiful city you have never been to.

As a result, when visitors frequent Venice, they rush to take a selfie on the Rialto Bridge, pay extortionate amounts to ride on a gondola, and join one of the multitude of ravenous tour groups congregated in the piazza. Their experiences, thus, reinforce the myth of the city which attracted them there in the first place.

Yet this means most tourists only ever experience a tiny slither of what the city has to offer. There is an absence of real Venetian life in a package holiday; from the silent discos at the Campo Santa Margherita, to casual apertivos in the largely residential area of Cannaregio, there’s a lot of Venice which remains hidden from the tourists. This is typified by the Festa della Salute, an age old annual festival involving the Patriarch in Venice and the erection of a temporary bridge across the Grand Canal in the space of just two days. As I walked towards the bridge, I noticed that it was largely ignored by most tourists, still preoccupied by their visits to St. Marks, oblivious to the collective show of local spirit just round the corner. That was not the Venice they had come to see. Perhaps the most obvious example of this foreign ignorance of real Venetian life is the city’s football team, Venezia F. C.

The club’s home, Stadio Penzo, is situated away from all the sights, right on the eastern tip of the island for practical reasons. But, with barely any signs pointing you in its direction, it almost feels like the city doesn’t want you to go there. In fact, most of my friends were extremely surprised to find out that there was a stadium on the island, as unless you knew, you would be hard pressed to find it.

Ultimately, with all its culture and grandeur, Venice does not need a football team. The majority of fans are working class, getting the boat in from the very industrial and decidedly unattractive Mestre on the mainland. The rusty old structures on which they form their base for 90 minutes is a far cry from the white sheen of the Rialto. During the game, dedicated if slightly unhinged ultras stand at the front of the terraces, never taking their eyes off the fans, armed with a megaphone and extreme levels of self-confidence. In addition to leading a succession of chants all game long, they point to areas of the crowd they feel are not quite generating the boisterous atmosphere they desire. The constant jostling and heckling of the more stocious fans is seemingly a world away from the quaint but largely tame Venetian bars, and their rather more ‘civilised’ displays of sociability. Yet, I would argue, by distancing itself from this working class reality, Venice is missing a trick.

Even if you’re not a sports fan, it’s hard not to marvel at attending something as common as a football game in such a unique setting, with water surrounding you on two sides. Enjoying the unbelievable atmosphere generated by the ultras under the beating sun, occasionally relieved by some flying beer, is a sensation that can at times be jarring, but also complements the civility of the piazza. Venezia F. C. injects some much needed life into the often sterile surroundings of the lagoon city, adding some variety to the Venetian experience. (Believe it or not, parading through its throng of admittedly beautiful churches sometimes becomes a little monotonous). The bottom line is attending a game is different, and bloody good fun too, which renders it extremely marketable.

This brings us to the point of how exactly to commercialise it. In March, it was announced that the American Football team, Oakland Raiders, would relocate to Las Vegas, much to the dismay of one of the largest fan bases in the NFL. Many factors motivated this decision, primarily the decrepit state of the Oakland–Alameda County Coliseum and the small fry, by NFL standards, wealth of owner Mike Davies. Until recently, Las Vegas, due to the NFL’s relationship with gambling, had been prohibited from hosting a team. However, with those restrictions lifted, the move made sense from a business perspective, if not a fan’s one. When coming to ‘do’ Vegas for a weekend, tourists will now add, so it’s hoped anyway, attending a football game to the itinerary, diversifying the glitz and glamour of the casinos and hotels.

The resort city is perhaps one of the few comparable to Venice, in that they are both, although the Italian city more so, dependent on a continuous cycle of external customers frequenting for a long weekend, to do and see all the world renowned pleasures the two famous cities have to offer. Both lack the home markets and industry to survive any other way.

Therefore, this idea of a sports franchise, combining a small pool of loyal fans with causal tourists, and incorporating it into the experience of holidaying in the city, could be directly applicable to Venice too. Joe Tacopina, Venezia’s extremely ambitious American owner, has aspirations of promotion and expansion on the imminent agenda. One would think that an aggressive commercial strategy of actively trying to break into the gigantic Venetian tourist industry would align with his goals.

As you arrive in the airport, there are various places to purchase boat rides and tour tickets. Imagine if upon entrance, tourists could buy tickets for the weekend’s game, given a free scarf to go with it, and directions to the stadium. Fixtures could be advertised in San Marco, with discounted tickets available in hotels and along the Strada Nuovo. The Stadio Penzo, a unique site in its own right, could even be incorporated into tours of the city, being only ten minutes from the Arsenale, with some lovely park areas nearby. With over 20 million visiting the city each year, even just 1% of them attending games could increase the clubs revenue by millions. This too would enhance the city’s tourism, diversifying its appeal, and adding something to do, in a place where often there are only things to see.

Venice probably won’t start trying to sell its football team as part of the wider tourist experience, despite the potential financial boost. Of course, one must also acknowledge that such an overtly commercial strategy  would likely upset the extremely proud and exclusive fans, similarly to those left aggrieved in Oakland, but when has that ever stopped a sports franchise before? Ultimately, from a fans perspective, I hope they do not implement the measures suggested in this article. However, were they to do so, it could well be to the financial benefit of the club and the city.

Words by Patrick Graham: @patrickgraham16