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Milan CEO Gazidis on Serie A's rise and how to emulate the Premier League's success

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Ask AC Milan chief executive Ivan Gazidis who he supports in international football and he admits things can get a bit confusing. Born in South Africa, of Greek descent, he grew up in Scotland and England and spent 16 years working in the United States, before becoming chief executive at Arsenal in 2009, a tenure that lasted a decade. "I also have a Dutch grandparent ... these are all option available to me," he tells ESPN. "In 2004 [when Greece famously won the Euros], I was Greek. Very Greek. It's a marriage of convenience."

Gazidis is joking, but his experiences on both sides of the Atlantic -- as former deputy commissioner of Major League Soccer and his time as chief executive at Arsenal, where he was also on the executive committee of the European Club Association -- make him ideally placed to weigh in on the changing face of football.

Dec. 1 will mark the two-year anniversary of when Elliott Advisors hired Gazidis to turn around the fortunes of Milan on and, especially, off the pitch. Elliott's plan was transparent: they acquired the club when the previous owner, Li Yonghong, who had borrowed some $350 million from them to buy Milan (at a total valuation in excess of $800m), defaulted on his payments. By any definition, Milan were a distressed asset, but also a sleeping giant with a huge fanbase and one of the strongest brands in the sports world. They figured that with some investment and smart leadership Milan could grow and, perhaps, be sold for sizeable profit in three to five years.

It's been a bumpy ride. Since Gazidis' arrival, Milan have had three managers -- and came within a whisker from appointing a fourth, Ralf Rangnick -- while the acrimonious departure, in March, of chief football office Zvonimir Boban from the front office after nine months in charge cast further doubt on the club's progress. Meanwhile, Milan's accounts show losses of more than half a billion Euros over the past six years and they're likely to suffer a hefty loss this season as well. Part of it is the legacy of profligate spending before the Elliott takeover; part of it is the new owners' belief that you have to invest to turn the club around.

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"What we're doing at Milan is very clear, very difficult," Gazidis tells ESPN. "We have to bring our wage bill down while at the same time increasing performance and that's not easy to do."

On the flip side, Milan produced a strong finish last season and, as of this moment, they're top of Serie A. They've had three straight years of 50,000-plus crowds at San Siro (pre-pandemic) and, Gazidis says, they have a global fanbase of some 450 million. What that means -- or how you monetize it -- is another matter, but there is a sense positive things are happening, not only at Milan but also throughout Serie A.

"A lot of the success of the Premier League has been based on this global outlook, this internationalization," he says. "It happened both in terms of footballing ideas but then, more recently in terms of foreign ownership and international management. And this mix of ideas, this diversity has been one of the driving forces of its success." Indeed, 16 of the 20 Premier League clubs are foreign-owned (and one of the remaining holdouts, Burnley, is in talks with overseas owners). By contrast, Serie A has six foreign owners. These investors are there for a reason: opportunity. So, too, are the private equity firms bidding for a share of Serie A's media rights.

"I think Italian football, clearly, on the field is international and our brands are international brands," Gazidis says. "So all the elements are there. Look at the interest from private equity groups. They're not stupid ... they want to be involved in the modernization and professionalization of Italian football, they know there's enormous untapped potential. If we take the right steps, Italian football can go back to ... the top of world football. I think Serie A has the greatest potential out of the Big Five leagues in terms of growth. And I actually think Milan has the greatest potential as an individual club."

Gazidis is bullish about Italian football -- as you'd expect -- and the parallel with the Premier League is enticing. But one key difference is that the Premier League, especially during the nearly two decades of Richard Scudamore's tenure as chief executive, from 1999 to 2018, seemed to speak with a united voice, at least in public. League meetings in Serie A have historically been near gladiatorial affairs. "[Scudamore] had the skill in holding all these different perspectives and agendas together," he says. "In Italy, we don't see such a strong sense of unity, this sense that clubs are competitors on the field and business partners off it. It's been more about competition on and off the pitch. But I do think it's changing and it's because two things are happening.

"One is that there is a change in the type of owners. I don't just mean foreign owners, Italian ones too. There are more owners who don't think about themselves solely as personal benefactors for a club, but who see it as a business as well. You have to have both to have a healthy environment. The other is that as revenue goes up, so too do transfer fees and wages and costs, and it becomes less viable to ignore the fact that clubs have common interests. So clubs need to be on the same page. I think we'll see more of this in Serie A, along the model of the Premier League."

In recent weeks, talk of a European Super League has resurfaced. Gazidis heard the same talk while at Arsenal. While he concedes the idea may have its economic attractions, he appears sceptical, possibly because the subject remains so undefined: some take it to mean an expanded Champions League, others a proper breakaway entity operating beyond FIFA control.

"The direction of travel is for more European football, that's not in question," he says. "And that's why people are interested in it. But I think there are deeper questions that football doesn't ask itself enough. Football is a tremendous force, it's this common cultural language, it's something that unites us ... it's a great way of communicating a fantastic vision for what the world could be. OK, I'll get off my high horse now. But I love this idea and I think this global aspect is something we really need to think about and lean into.

"The other question which I think is more of a threat is generational. Football has a tremendous conservatism, which has served it relatively well. But unless we think very carefully about the way people, especially young people, are consuming their entertainment, about how they're connecting with content, it's so radically different. We need to think about what they're going to want five, 10, 15 years from now. I think they'll still want this content, but they'll engage with it in radically different ways. It's a very, very big threat to the game, but also a huge opportunity."

Gazidis is referring to Millennials and short attention spans, with fans not sitting down for 90 minutes of live football in front of the TV but instead watching on a small screen or phone while dropping in and out, chatting with friends, gaming ... it's not a rejection of football so much as experiencing the sport in a different way. "I think it's a really complex issue," he says.

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Back to Milan. When Boban left, slamming the door behind him, Italian media talked about the "two souls" of Milan. It was new school versus old school. "New school" was the belief in building through youth and analytics, buying low and selling high, while modernizing a club commercially which had been on the cutting edge 30 years earlier under Silvio Berlusconi. "Old school" was sticking to the strategy that had brought success in the latter years of the Berlusconi era: big names, big wages, veteran players who stuck around seemingly forever.

Gazidis publicly denied that there were two "souls." In any case, it's pretty clear which mindset has the upper hand, albeit with one major concession to the "old school." Milan have one of the youngest squads in Europe, though their centre-forward, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, is 39.

Ibrahimovic is the exception; Milan are committed to their new course of youth, analytics, value signings and outside-the-box thinking, even though they don't always get it right -- think of the disastrous appointment of Marco Giampaolo in the summer of 2019, or the pursuit of Rangnick which, given the club's success, feels like a bullet dodged. To Gazidis, part of this is the natural conservatism of football culture, not just in Italy, but also across Europe.

"[Football] culture is quite closed," he says. "There are football people and anybody else with new ideas who is not a football person is seen as a threat. And the football community kind of coalesces together to form an impenetrable barrier for self-protection, maybe because they're suspicious of new ideas. They fall back on the tried and tested clichés."

The good news, he says, is that ideas -- new and old -- get put to the test every week in football. If you have the courage to do things differently, you'll know pretty soon if it's working. If it does, the status quo will change and others will emulate you. He's seen it before. Gazidis cites Arsene Wenger at Arsenal and German football in the past 15 years as examples of "closed cultures" that were subverted by new ideas which were initially met with scepticism and, occasionally, derision. Wenger was transformative in the Premier League, helping to change everything from diet to training to tactics. Similarly, German football underwent a massive transformation ahead of the 2006 World Cup, which would see the emergence of a generation of gifted managers and players.

"Football is an environment that challenge your prejudices," Gazidis says. "The get found out. Look at the changes in England, for example. Wenger played a big part in that. When you're successful, things change very, very quickly because the results are there on the pitch."

It's what Gazidis wants for Milan and -- why not? -- Serie A. "As people see a clear vision, as our fans enjoy the football, things can change very quickly," he says. "And I think Italian football as a whole is an environment that's very ripe for that and will take a huge step forward. And they'll do it quickly. Surprisingly quickly."