Mallorca learning lessons from NBA after Phoenix Suns' investment
Phoenix Suns co-owner Andy Kohlberg, who also bought Real Mallorca last January, insists that lessons learned in the NBA are being put to work in Spanish football's second division.
Kohlberg, his long-term Suns business partner Robert Sarver, and ex-Suns player Steve Nash, spent €20 million to take over Mallorca in January 2016 -- and are now putting in place a long term structure, with the aim of making the Segunda Division club competitive back in the top flight.
Speaking exclusively to ESPN FC at La Liga's headquarters in Madrid, Kohlberg said NBA expertise across areas from nutrition, to physical preparation, to marketing, was being leveraged.
"We want to bring a lot of what we've developed at the Phoenix Suns to Mallorca," Kohlberg says. "Our trainers from the Suns were in Mallorca a couple of weeks ago, while Mallorca's directors have been to Phoenix twice to understand how the franchise there is run.
"We're aware they are obviously different sports and it's a different approach. But there are many similarities in nutrition, training and injury prevention, also in marketing and other areas. We've invested in the training facility at Son Bibiloni, putting in a new dining area for the players and upgrading the physical equipment. We've a superb training staff in Phoenix and we've learned a lot about what works and what doesn't."
Kohlberg and Sarver had been looking to get into European football for some time and saw an opportunity in a club which won the 2003 Copa del Rey, but had more recently slipped down a division having had four different owners in seven years.
"Robert Sarver made an offer on Glasgow Rangers [in January 2015]," Kohlberg says. "That didn't go through and we started looking at clubs in England, in the Champions League, and here in Spain. It's very difficult to buy a club anywhere. We thought Mallorca had a great history. Trying to get it up to the first division was a good challenge and made sense from a business perspective."
Mallorca has since been shaken up from top to bottom, with a new coach, new chief executive, new sporting director and 16 new players coming in so far. The project almost stumbled early however, with the team needing a final day win at Valladolid in May to avoid relegation to the third tier.
"Saying it is difficult coming in mid-season would be an understatement," Kohlberg adds. "We always knew it would be a long-term project. We've owned the Phoenix Suns for 12 years and it takes a while to build the infrastructure. This is not a sport, or a business, where you can come in, do something in one or two years, and get out. That's like going to the casino."
Often when wealthy foreign owners purchase a European football club, they immediately appoint big glamorous names to senior positions. Most obviously in La Liga where Valencia owner Peter Lim's hiring of former Manchester United defender-turned-television-pundit Gary Neville as a rookie first-team coach last season failed spectacularly.
Mallorca are following a different path. Coach Fernando Vazquez is vastly experienced in La Liga and popular with local fans after his previous spell in charge. Chief executive Maheta Molango is a former professional player with experience working as an executive at Atletico Madrid.
Sporting director Javier Recio was plucked from Espanyol due to his record of scouting and developing young talent. The rebuilt squad now mixes experienced heads with promising youngsters, such as Julio Pleguezuelo, a 19-year-old loan signing from Arsenal who was born in Mallorca and developed at Barcelona.
Kohlberg, who is CEO of Kisco SeniorLiving and a former 1987 Wimbledon mixed doubles semifinalist, says he has learned when to step back at the Suns and let the experts do their jobs.
"A lot of owners think they know more than they do," he said. "I watch a tennis match from a tennis player's perspective, not a fan's perspective, as I played for a long time. We try and leave the decisions about players to people who really know it.
"You make a lot of mistakes, and hopefully you get better as an ownership group, year after year. But it's not easy, especially for people new to owning a sports club. It's very different than running a business."
The U.S. owners of the Balearic islands' only pro-sports club are keen to maintain links with the local community, including the estimated 50,000 ex-pat residents, and the 10 million tourist visitors each year. Part of this was inviting West Brom for a preseason friendly in August, with the Premier League side beaten 1-0 at Son Moix.
"This is very important for us," Kohlberg says. "Whenever I visit I go to events and meet with the local community. We also reach out to the British, German and Swedish groups here on the island."
There's also a focus on growing the Mallorca brand back home, and ex-Real Madrid star Raul Gonzalez, now La Liga's country manager in the United States, was recently welcomed to Phoenix.
"Raul visited the Phoenix Suns earlier in the year," Kohlberg adds. "Phoenix has a large Hispanic population and we're hoping to bring Mallorca over for some friendlies. The name Mallorca has worldwide appeal as a brand, more so than some other clubs we looked at. If we've a good team and great players, we think that is very marketable.
"Over the next 20 years, basketball and football here will continue to grow in terms of TV revenue, more than any other major US sport. With the globalisation of the game, and the growth in mobile devices, the potential is really significant."
This calendar year has also seen new Chinese owners at La Liga clubs Espanyol and Granada, while Chinese group Wanda took a 20 percent share in Atletico Madrid in January 2015. And Kohlberg believes that other experienced American franchise owners are likely to follow and invest in La Liga clubs.
"Some of the other professional [U.S.] sports owners have bought teams in England, and in Italy too, and a natural extension is here [in Spain]," he said. "I think it's pretty likely over time. We've definitely felt welcomed, partly due to the connection with the Phoenix Suns. Our experience is helpful and beneficial, versus just some investor coming in and buying a club. It's very, very different."
Over time, Mallorca will look to perhaps emulate similar sized La Liga clubs Malaga and Villarreal by reaching the Champions League latter stages. But what would it mean to hosting fellow U.S. owners such as the Glazers of Manchester United for a European game at Son Moix?
"That'd be great," he says. "If we could get up to La Liga and really be a powerful force again, that'd be terrific. We're taking it one step at a time, we've a long term view. Certainly La Liga is heading in the right direction. We think that will continue for years to come."
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan