Friday, May 24, 2024

NBA greats Steve Kerr, Steve Nash among US-based owners hoping for Spain’s Mallorca to win Copa del Rey

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Ask Andy Kohlberg, one of the American owners of Spanish club Mallorca along with NBA greats Steve Kerr and Steve Nash, if he recommends soccer club-ownership in Europe, and he’ll give you a straight answer.

“Not to anyone sane,” Kohlberg says with a chuckle.

“It’s very hard. It’s very different than running a normal business, and especially in another country, dealing with the difference in culture and language and customs,” says Kohlberg, a former professional tennis player who is Mallorca’s main shareholder and its president.

In fact, the former vice chairman of the Phoenix Suns will tell you that people would be better off taking an NBA team or another franchise in American sports, where there’s no need to deal with the “ups and downs” of relegations and promotions that are inherent to soccer leagues and that can ruin clubs’ finances.

“It’s totally different with American sports,” he says. “If you have a bad season, it’s just one season, there’s not a lot of change. I think we are the only club in Spain that’s been in six years in six divisions. It’s not a record I’m proud of, but I think very few people have suffered like us.”

Come this weekend, though, Kohlberg and minority owners Kerr and Nash will be enjoying the fun part of the soccer club-ownership experience. They will be watching Mallorca share center stage with Athletic Bilbao on Saturday in Seville in the final of the Copa del Rey.

The “historic and surprising” trip to the final, as Kohlberg puts it, helps validate the work being done by the American owners who bought the Balearic Islands club eight years ago by purchasing some $20 million worth of shares in a deal led by former Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver.

The Copa success also helps show that Mallorca is on the right track despite the early struggles for the club, whose main goal in recent years has been to remain in Spain’s top-flight.

Despite the hardships, the 64-year-old Kohlberg guarantees there are no regrets at having made the leap into club ownership in Europe, and says the American owners are in it for the long run.

“The passion here for football is amazing and different than in the U.S.,” Kohlberg tells The Associated Press after a meeting with journalists organized by the EFE Spanish news agency. “In the U.S., they are passionate but it’s more about fun and entertainment and music and cheerleaders and dancing, whereas here it’s just tribal warfare, something deeper.”

Kerr and Nash are not as involved with the club, though Kohlberg said they watch the games and sometimes talk about the results afterward. Nash became a shareholder during the club’s purchase in 2016, while Kerr joined last year. The Golden State Warriors coach spoke to the first-team squad when he visited the club in 2022.

Nash, the two-time NBA MVP from Victoria, B.C. is an avid soccer fan, used to be on the board and made several visits to Mallorca. He has also practiced with the team’s B squad in the past.

“When the team loses, they call me and ask, ‘What are you doing?’” Kohlberg joked about Nash’s and Kerr’s involvement with the club.

Other former athletes who are Mallorca investors include former U.S. soccer player Stuart Holden and former England defender Graeme Le Saux, who is also a board member.

“The mentality of successful athletes is different,” Kohlberg says. “They understand what type of players are successful.”

Mallorca is one of only five first-division clubs in Spain with foreign ownership, along with Girona, Granada, Almeria and Valencia. Mallorca is the only one owned by Americans.

Nash, Holden and La Saux are expected to be at La Cartuja Stadium for Saturday’s final. Nash and Holden were caught on camera wildly celebrating the club’s promotion to the first division in 2019.

Kohlberg will also be there on Saturday. He has been involved in the club’s bigger decisions, but leaves the day-to-day running to business CEO Alfonso Díaz and sporting director Pablo Ortells. He says there is no reason to bring someone from the U.S. to take on those roles.

“It has to be run from Mallorca,” Kohlberg says. “It has to be people living in Mallorca, people who know Spanish football.”

Kohlberg says he has been coming to Spain about four times a year. He took majority control of the club last summer after buying Sarver’s shares during the club’s restructuring.

One of the reasons the Americans picked Mallorca was because it’s based on a tourist island that attracts some 13 million visitors every year.

“Maybe they are from Germany and are Bayern Munich fans but they want to come for a unique football experience,” Kohlberg says. “We are trying to bring something different and unique to Mallorca.”

Mallorca used some of the money that the Spanish league received from the CVC investment fund to renovate its 26,000-capacity stadium and promote a better experience for fans. It renovated VIP areas and created entertainment zones that are more similar to those found in American arenas than in other soccer stadiums in Spain.

The club has almost 21,000 season ticket-holders and had to work with airlines and companies that run the ferry service from mainland Spain to the island to make sure nearly all them could make the trip to Seville for the final.

Mallorca has a budget of nearly 70 million euros ($75.7 million), and the American owners are believed to have invested more than $100 million in the club since they arrived.

Founded in 1916, Mallorca enjoyed some of its best years in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when it finished third in the Spanish league in 1999 and 2001, and won the Copa del Rey in 2003. It hadn’t made it to the Copa final since then, having previously lost the decider in 1991 and 1998. It was in the third division in 2017-18, and went up and down through divisions after that, though it is making its third straight appearance in the top tier.

“When we bought the club we did not plan to go up and down, up and down, up and down …” Kohlberg says. “It’s difficult when you are going up and down, but you are just trying to build a good foundation. Investing in the academy, the stadium, the practice facilities, the management team. If you are building a foundation, you can manage the ups and downs and hopefully we can remain in La Liga and continue to build the club.”

More important than winning the Copa, which would not bring significant prize money, is for Mallorca to remain in the top tier. It sits in 15th place, six points above the relegation zone.

“We want to solidify our position in the first division and keep growing so we can comfortably stay in the top half of the standings every season,” Díaz says. “Right now, we still work with two parallel budgets, one for if we play in the first division and another if we are relegated.”

The team’s recent revival can be linked to the arrival of veteran Mexican coach Javier Aguirre in March 2022. He helped the team avoid relegation that year, and led Mallorca to a ninth-place finish last season. His contract expires at the end of the season and there’s still no decision on whether he’ll return.

Kohlberg says the focus is on beating Athletic on Saturday.

“It would put us on another level as a club,” he says. “It would be great for the fans, great for the project. The stadium has already revolutionized the club, and this would take it to another level.”


AP soccer:

Tales Azzoni, The Associated Press

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