Exposure, player experience the motivation for unconventional Italian Bowl in Toledo

The Italian Football League season is in full swing and this year, the country’s nine first-division teams are chasing a unique prize.

In October, the IFL raised eyebrows across Europe when they announced that the league’s annual championship game, the Italian Bowl, would be held outside of the country for the first time in history. Instead of in Rome or Bologna, the 2023 title will be awarded on Saturday, July 1 at the Glass Bowl in Toledo, Ohio – over 4,600 miles away and a six-hour time difference from their primary fan base.

The news took many by surprise, with some questioning the merits of holding a storied national event overseas for an American audience. According to long-time Italian Bowl director Raffaello Pellegrini, those critics are missing the bigger picture.

“It’s been 40 years that it’s been held in Italy, it’s a big event with lots of local people involved. Taking it for one time to the United States should not be something to critique, but a very good opportunity to have the spotlight on our football,” he said during a recent interview with AFI.

“Even the Italian Soccer League sometimes plays abroad the final of the National Cup. It is a matter of creating a good TV product with the right scenery. The Glass Bowl stadium could be a very good scene.”

The concept of a destination Italian Bowl has been percolating for some time. Local Toledo developer Nick Eyde spent six years as a quarterback in the IFL for the Rome Ducks, Reggio Emilia Hogs and Bolzano Giants. He’s returned to Italy on several occasions to do play-by-play calls on the Italian Bowl and his relationship with Pellegrini led the two to spearhead a sister city agreement between their respective hometowns in 2018.

Pain of an empty stadium: Lansing’s Nick Eyde mourns for the Italy he ...

Nick Eyde played for the Bolzano Giants

It was during meetings for that initiative that the idea was first floated, a novel way to deepen the relationship between the two regions. From a historical perspective, the football connections were tantalizing. Ohio is the birthplace of both the NFL and the forward pass, while the first football game in Italy was played by American troops in World War 2 who drove through the country in Jeeps manufactured in Toledo.

Though it took several years to organize, in part due to the COVID pandemic, Eyde assembled a group of sponsors ready to back the game. Mayor Wade Kapszukiewicz quickly jumped on board with the idea, as did the University of Toledo and athletic director Bryan Blair, who granted the use of their 26,000-seat college football stadium.

“It started with the sister city relationship between two cities in Ferrara and Toledo that have some synergies in the engineering and academic world, and we hope that this leads to more exposure, more connection between two places,” Eyde explained.

“Beyond football, it’s a cultural connection. There may be business and economic growth that come out of this and these are the way things start. Sports brings people together and that’s why this is more than just a football game for everybody that is involved, from the city, the university, and on the business side.”

In the eyes of IFL decision-makers like Pellegrini, the opportunity to host a premier event in a world-class venue was too good to pass up. In his time as the director and main sponsor of the Italian Bowl, he had always desired more for those on the field.

“I saw something that had the chance to be organized better, especially from the players’ point of view,” Pellegrini admitted. “Giving the players one time to play as a professional, to play in an event perfectly organized with all the staff, with the show, with the halftime, with everything done the proper way is what I would dream of if I was a player.”

Nick Eyde

Nick Eyde has become a successful developer in Toledo

Pulling off the event will come at no small cost, as it will require transporting the two best teams in Italy halfway across the globe and putting them up on the campus of the University of Toledo. According to organizers, none of that cost will be placed on the shoulders of the league or its teams, with Eyde’s group in Ohio footing the bill for all those logistical challenges.

Tickets for the event are being sold at a price of $15 a head and revenue from those sales will be entirely directed toward the group until the event breaks even. Once the initiative is in the black, the IFL will receive some of the profit, though any financial incentive behind putting an Italian Bowl on foreign soil is more of a long-term play.

The game will be broadcast on television in northeast Ohio and the timing of the 2:00 p.m. EST kickoff is meant to facilitate an Italian TV deal as well. Showing a professional-looking product to a wider audience and gaining exposure in new markets can only help the growing sport.

“If you don’t have visibility through media, you don’t exist. And if you don’t exist, you cannot have money from sponsors,” Pellegrini said. “To organize football teams, money is an issue. I hope that this will give us the chance to have more visibility in order to attract more companies able to invest in what is, for me, the best team sport in the world.”

On the American side, the response has been one of intrigue, with many learning for the first time that American football is played in Italy. The novelty of the event has earned plenty of local media attention, as well as some from a variety of Italian-American organizations, some of which have considered tying other events to the Italian Bowl and buying tickets for their entire group.

Intervista a Raffaello Pellegrini | Italian Bowl

Italian Bowl Director Raffaello Pellegrini

Still, Eyde knows that his group is wading into uncharted waters and can’t say just how many people in Ohio will show up to watch players from Parma or Florence battle for a title.

“I don’t know. I don’t know whether it’s going to be 1,000, whether it’s going to be 15,000 or 20,000. It’ll be a first-time event and people will kind of find this out all together,” he acknowledged. “What we want to do is create a really welcoming situation from the city of Toledo for a fun international event and make them feel welcome, make them feel appreciated, and give them a lively crowd to enjoy some football on Fourth of July weekend.”

The lead-up to the game will feature a number of complimentary events, including an Italian food festival and a football skills competition featuring local mayors. Gameday will have a tailgate party and an anthem performance by award-winning opera singer Mariam Battistelli – herself a former safety in the Italian Women’s League. The range of festivities should attract both locals and Italians to make the trek, with Eyde believing it could pay dividends for future Italian Bowl host cities.

“I could see some people really having a good time at this one and then they may say, okay, I want to go see the one next year and then travel and see other cities in Italy,” he predicted.

Whether or not the league sees any financial returns from the initiative, Pellegrini believes it will be worth any perceived risk. For both him and Eyde, it is the players who have been top of mind throughout this process, many of whom have long imagined chasing the American dream and playing at an event like this.

“I would like to stress that our championship is not an economic issue. It is not about making money out of ticketing, it is not covered by big media, it is a matter of playing hard on Sunday and then on Monday morning having to wake up early to go back to your job or to go back to university,” Pellegrini stressed. “Organizing a final at this level, in this kind of stadium, in the United States where football was born exactly in Ohio, for the players is a great reward.”

Toledo-Rockets-Football-Stadium-Glass-Bowl | Football stadiums, Toledo ...

University of Toledo’s home stadium, “The Glass Bowl”

By all accounts, the excitement from players across the league about this unique opportunity is palpable and Pellegrini hopes it can motivate them into producing one of the best seasons on record. Reaction from other groups has been somewhat mixed, but he has paid little attention to the criticism.

“People involved in football for a long time like myself see only a great opportunity to make history by taking the final for the first time over there,” Pellegrini said. “People involved for less time maybe see only the short term. Some people simply hate whatever you do or whatever you don’t do.”

While neither party would rule out the potential for future Italian Bowls in Toledo or other interested American cities, this was conceived as a one-time event and the national championship will return to its home country next year. Only time will tell if 2023 will be remembered as the bold, business-savvy departure from the norm that its organizers hope for or as simply a bizarre footnote in the history of one of Europe’s most coveted prizes.

J.C. Abbott is a student at the University of British Columbia and amateur football coach in Vancouver, Canada. A CFL writer for 3DownNation, his love of travel has been the root of his fascination with the global game.