James Pallotta's AS Roma knows what it means to be high profile.
The team plays in Serie A, the top flight of the Italian soccer pyramid, one of the best and highly competitive leagues in the world of association football. They're an international brand worth over 173 million euros, one of the most lucrative clubs in the world. And they're preparing to move from the Stadio Olimpico, the national stadium of the Italian soccer team, into their own Stadio della Roma, a 60,000-seat edifice inspired by the Colisseum.
Pallotta is a man known for dreaming big. He hopes to fill his new stadium with marquee attractions, including the NFL and the NBA. But he's also looking to a completely different attraction, one that seems far-fetched but extremely unique, to do something that's never been done - draw Notre Dame and Boston College overseas for a Catholic-inspired matchup where the Pope tosses the opening coin.
In a recent article, Pallotta, himself a shareholder in the Boston Celtics, expressed an interest in having the two teams compete in Rome as part of its "Holy War" rivalry. With BC in his backyard, he's acutely aware of the draw of having the only two big time Catholic college football teams play each other, especially with next year's matchup scheduled for Fenway Park. If this were to ever come to fruition, it would supercede the collegiate scene, bypass the American sports scene, and become one of the biggest events in the world.
Anytime the Pope is attached to anything, it instantly becomes a must-watch attraction. As the leader of the world's largest Christian religion, he is greeted everywhere by throngs of cheering and adoring crowds. Anytime he visits anywhere, he is instantly the biggest draw, the main star attraction, completely captivating and compelling. Attaching the Pope to a sporting event instantly makes that sporting event something out of a movie. The Catholic tie-in most certainly cannot be ignored, and it makes it something realistically possible, even if it's improbable.
But at the same time, it seems something of a far-fetched idea, and I'm also not sure the fit is logical. I understand the Catholic tie-in, and there's even a deeper tie-in since Pope Francis is a Jesuit, the order governing Boston College. But the comparisons kind of end there, and the attraction to the football game in Italy wouldn't necessarily be the teams as it is the Pope.
I'm not saying that's a bad thing, but if you can't make the game marketable without the Pope, it might not be worth doing. Notre Dame's team name is the Fighting Irish with a leprechaun mascot, which makes playing games on the Emerald Isle make sense. Boston itself has substantial Italian populations, but at 8% of the city's inhabitants, they number roughly half of the 15% of the population recognized as Irish.
Then there's the other aspect - popularity of the sport. American football takes roots from rugby. Rugby and Gaelic football, along with Hurling, are among the most popular sports in Ireland. Rugby Union is especially popular throughout cities like Dublin, Ulster, and Cork. Italian sport draws popularity almost exclusively from association football (soccer), gymnastics, skiing, and aquatics. Sports resembling American football are not as popular, and therefore the argument that the game would be supported is unsubstantiated.
It's also interesting to note that the World League of American Football/NFL Europe/NFL Europa never expanded or even attempted to place a team in Italy. The NFL International Series, which played games in Mexico and London, looked only into expansion within the UK and Ireland. This is despite the game's relative success in Germany and, once again, no discussions, at all, for Italy.
Without homegrown support for the game, the marketing efforts would have to rely almost exclusively on the Pope or American fans traveling. But Italy is substantially further from Boston and New York City than to Dublin or London. While possible, it's tough to sell the concept of flying halfway across the world, although I'm sure American fans could be enticed to book travel to Italy in order to see this game. Italy's time zone sits roughly six hours ahead of Boston.
If the Pope is attached, the whole game changes. It instantly becomes one of the hottest tickets in the entire world. But if you're trying to book the game without the Pope in the hope of enticing Francis with Catholic football schools, I'm not sure it works. From a pure marketing standpoint, there's no reason for Notre Dame and BC to uproot their rivalry overseas, much like there isn't much reason for the Beanpot to go to Belfast. If they do go overseas, it's more likely they should play in Ireland, especially given both teams' Irish identity.
It's an interesting prospect, and it's not one I support one way or the other. Any time Notre Dame and Boston College are mentioned, it becomes a circled event for college football fans. It would be a star attraction for fans in Ireland, where both BC and ND played, and there's proof thereof with the schools' roots within the nation (for better or for worse). As for Italy? That's a tough sale to sell.