Know your oligarch: Carlos Slim isn’t the sugar daddy Leon and Pachuca fans hoped for

At one point in our lives, we’ve all indulged in a Sugar Daddy fantasy. We’d solve all our problems by marrying, or even just dating, a really rich person. They’d pay off our credit card and student loan debt, gift us expensive electronic toys and cars, and in exchange we’d only have to sit through boring galas and put up with high-strung in-laws. Soccer fans are no exception, dreaming of the day a bored Russian Oligarch or Sheikh buys their club. The pointed jokes about money and class can be endured as long as the team’s fortunes are reversed.

Thus, when billionaire Carlos Slim bought Liga MX clubs Leon and Pachuca, fans dared to fantasize about windfalls, about large cash infusions. Instead, they got a tight fist.

Carlos Slim is rich beyond your wildest imaginations. The rich people you know in real life are on the waiting list to be the caddies at Slim’s country club. Every year, Forbes forecasts a two-horse race for richest man on the planet between Bill Gates and Carlos Slim. For the past few years, Slim has won out. He came from a wealthy family and used that cushion to build his fortune in true Mitt Romney fashion: buying and then stripping distressed companies. He eventually ascended to billionaire status by buying Mexico’s privatized telecom sector in the 1990’s and turning it into today’s powerhouse América Móvil. He’s recently had some tangles with anti-trust authorities, but who hasn’t?

So when Slim’s Grupo Carso bought a 30% stake in Pachuca and Leon in 2012, fans rejoiced. Not long after, Leon signed Mexican international Rafa Márquez and went on to win back-to-back titles. But at the time of this writing, neither team is in the playoff spots. Last season, Pachuca, sixth-place finishers the season before, barely qualified for the playoffs by finishing seventh place. Neither club has sniffed the title game in a few years. Fans’ dreams of the clubs signing established stars or promising youngsters have gone unfulfilled.

To understand the present, we must re-examine the past. How did Slim’s recently acquired Leon win its two titles? By keeping Gustavo Matosas, the manager who’d guided the team in the second division. Leon then signed a defender the wrong side of 30 who had failed in MLS. Imagine if, today, Slim tried to repeat that strategy. Would you turn your nose at him? Damn right. Slim’s sporting approach to Leon was ripped from the corporate playbook: a large initial investment followed by some light asset-stripping and hole-plugging. He is no Roman Abramovich, ready to spend millions year after year to keep Chelsea in the trophy hunt.

Midtable mediocrity is acceptable for Slim, because he’s still making money. The Liga MX TV deal more closely resembles La Liga than the Premier League, with each individual club negotiating its own deal. Shortly after buying Pachuca and Leon, Slim took them off free-to-air TV, moving the broadcast of their games to his on-demand digital TV network. Fans were pissed when they realized the only way to watch the classic final between Leon and Club America was to pay.

Slim, rather than taking an interest in winning, looks to be using his Liga MX clubs to promote his telecommunications strategy. His endgame is a successful on-demand digital TV company, not a Liga MX title or Copa MX. Despite both Leon and Pachuca turning a profit, he’s not reinvesting those funds back into the clubs. He is, however, considering buying a team in Colombia, where he also owns a telecom company.

Fans may have dreamt of a sugar daddy, but not all rich people open up their purses so easily. Slim is a billionaire not because he spends lavishly on new acquisitions, but because, like those angels at Querétaro, he buys distressed businesses from millionaires. He then strips the business down to profitability. For a soccer club in Mexico to succeed, it needs large injections of cash every three-to-five years to replace aging players. Guess what’s not happening anytime soon at Pachuca or Leon? Yeah.

So, feel sad for fans of Pachuca and Leon. They thought they were getting a Sugar Daddy, but instead they got Uncle Scrooge. They and their clubs are mere pawns in a digital TV powerplay, and they have to pay to watch their teams stutter and slowly descend into mediocrity.

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