Know Your Oligarch: Payday lender Ricardo Salinas gets to own two Liga MX clubs

Morelia. Atlas. An ottoman, pillows full of feathers and Serta mattresses. Can you find comfort in comfort? Or must comfort serve some higher purpose? Fans of Morelia and Atlas have grown fat and lazy by basking in the not-too-warm glow of Liga MX’s mid-table. No imminent relegation fear; no expectation of a deep Liguilla run. Just day after day in the top flight, take it as it goes. Comfort.

A look at the recent finishes of Morelia and Atlas in the Liga MX table might as well be a glance at your high school yearbook. Morelia finished in last place to end 2015 and at the start of 2014, but before that rough patch consistently finished above 12th, even enjoying a mini-run of top-four finishes. At the decade’s start, Atlas flirted with relegation but has recently climbed out of the cellar and nailed two top-four finishes., though a deep Liguilla run remains more pipe dream than expectation. In the Porcentaje (relegation) table, Atlas sits ninth while Morelia is 14th. Relegation nightmares do not disturb their fans’ slumber.

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But not all fans feel comfortable. While the Angel Investors of Querétaro and the Azcarragas of Club América have pumped serious cash into their clubs, Atlas and Morelia owner Ricardo Salinas has treated his two clubs like Chivas’s Jorge Vergara: the novelty has worn off, and he views them like a black hole for cash. Don’t believe me? Harboring delusions? Well, take a moment and reflect. Ask yourself this basic question: When was the last exciting transfer to Atlas or Morelia? Take your time, I’ll wait…

Couldn’t think of one? Yeah, me neither. There hasn’t been anything major. Nada.

Ricardo Salinas Pliego made his fortune first in retail, where his Grupo Salinas (clever name!) owns and operates electronics store chain Elektra, which is big in Mexico and also exists in Central America. Think a cross between Radio Shack and Best Buy, but with a credit program that probably puts the “U” in usurious. In 1993, Elektra cut a deal with Western Union to allow for money transfers to Mexico. Why? Because it could earn a nominal fee off poor people getting money from immigrant relatives, that’s why. In the 1990s, Grupo Salinas bought Imvesion, renamed it TV Azteca, and built up the channel. However, don’t let the dabbling in TV fool you – Grupo Salinas bought Advance America in 2012, the largest U.S.’s largest company specializing in a practice that has been banned in many states: payday loans.

Thus, Salinas could use thousand dollar bills as toilet-paper, but why bother when your golden bidet has a diamond-encrusted handle? He is the second-richest man in Mexico, after all. He could easily sign top talent or soon-to-retire European stars, which is why, when he bought Morelia, fans dared to dream. Despite being anchored to a city of less than a million in one of Mexico’s poorer states, would Salinas splash the cash to attract top stars? Or even passable Argentines, the lifeblood of so many Liga MX teams?

Two decades later, and the answer is a resounding no. Instead of stars, Salinas signs players like recent Colombian import Jefferson Cuero – international never-beens who come to collect paychecks and rest on trainers’ tables. If ambition begets ambition, then stagnation consumes all.

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Morelia fans still feel nervousness, unease. They rightly ask, why do the mega-rich settle for the average? And they are not alone. If you recall, Mexico’s richest man, Carlos Slim, also owns two Liga MX clubs, León and Pachuca, and neither is doing so hot. Grupo Azteca, of which Salinas owns about 40 percent, bought Morelia Monarcas in 1996, and the club won its first (and only) ever Liga MX title in 2000. Since then, nothing. Instead, like Slim, the sense is the club’s owner is gaming the system to stay mid-table in perpetuity. Morelia’s roster is two stars from possible greatness, but Salinas will never sign them.

In 2013, things got complicated for Morelia fans. Atlas was facing serious financial difficulties when Salinas swooped in, buying the club for $50 million. If Salinas claimed he lacked funds to buy stars for Monarcas, how could he plop down the cash for a second club? In the last two years, Morelia fans have published an open letter to Salinas which has made the rounds on Facebook. Before they saw him as an indifferent father. Now they accuse him of playing favorites and investing in Atlas over Morelia.

Still, fans of Morelia and Atlas have to face the facts: smart businessmen like Slim and Salinas buy first division clubs for business interests, not to win games. They see a struggling club and smell a sweet business deal. Still, Salinas has done worse than being tight-fisted with Morelia and Atlas. In the early 2000s he was charged with self-dealing by the US Securities & Exchange Commission and banned from serving as a director for US companies for several decades. There’s no financial chicanery at Morelia or Atlas, just a piggy bank locked in a safe under a fort. Salinas, like Slim, has realized that Liga MX clubs are fun playthings that require a big initial investment but then can be operated on a very modest budget. You just have to not care about not winning.

Therein lies the problem: fans, like, care about winning. Many would trade a Liga MX crown for a decade in Liga de Ascenso. The memory of a genuine boom can still glow during the following bust. For businessmen, though, that up and down graph makes little financial sense.

Neither Atlas nor Morelia fans should expect to see any silverware anytime soon. Unless there’s a nearby street protest with the banging of pots and pans.

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