By Martyn Herman
(Reuters) – Abdon Prats, unlike Mallorca’s most famous resident and favourite son Rafael Nadal, could still stroll along one of the Balaeric island’s crowded tourist beaches undisturbed.
Then again, claycourt tennis king Nadal has never started a party quite like the one Prats ignited last weekend when he scored against Deportivo La Coruna to put Real Mallorca back amongst the elite of Spanish football after a six-year absence.
When Mallorca lost the away leg of their promotion playoff 2-0 a few days earlier it seemed the dream of hosting the Galacticos of Barcelona and Real Madrid next season was over.
But with eight minutes of the home tie left in a cauldron-like atmosphere at the Estadi de San Moix, local boy Prats buried a left-foot shot into the Deportivo goal to complete a stunning 3-0 victory, sending the crowd, including 12-time French Open champion Nadal, into delirium.
The final whistle triggered a red tide of fans who flooded the pitch and later Palma’s Placa Tortuga where thousands of ‘Los Bermellones’ partied the night away.
Two years earlier, still reeling from a 2010 bankruptcy, the 103-year-old club originally named after Spanish king Alfonso, dropped to the third tier and even diehard Reds could not have dreamed of such a turnaround.
After relegation from La Liga in 2013, ending a 16-year stay in which they twice finished third, won the Copa del Rey in 2003 and were runner-up in the last UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup in 1999, the club entered a tailspin that saw them fall into regional soccer in 2017.
Real Mallorca are no strangers to strife. The club almost died in the 1970s. This time, however, there was a silver-lining in the form of an American consortium led by Robert Sarver, owner of NBA team Phoenix Suns, and NBA Hall of Famer Steve Nash, which bought the club for 21 million euros (£18.81 million) in 2016.
“They were tempted because of the club’s 100-year history, the great academy that produced players like (Spain and Real Madrid winger) Marco Ascensio and the Son Moix stadium which just by doing refurbishment was ready for La Liga,” sports lawyer Maheta Molango, who helped facilitate the deal and is now Mallorca’s CEO, told Reuters by telephone.
“The problem was that the club was literally in pieces. We lost eight million euros the first year and although we tried to steady the ship we went down (to the third tier).
“But getting relegated proved the club’s salvation. We were able to make drastic decisions.”
Swiss-born Molango, who once played for English seaside club Brighton & Hove Albion, scoring 20 seconds into his debut, said a root and branch restructuring took place.
Vicente Moreno was hired as coach in 2017 and players like midfielder Salva Sevilla and Slovakian defender Martin Valjent were added to a squad put together on a shoestring budget.
“They were sold a dream,” Molango said. “We had just been relegated but the owners conveyed a message of being solid, very serious. We said this we’ve been through a difficult time but this project can take off.
“Do you want to be in it from the start?”
The climb began. In the 2017-18 Mallorca won their section of Secunda B to return to the second-tier and last season finished fifth, before winning the playoffs.
Once the celebrations subside, Mallorca still owe around 17 million euros in bankruptcy debt but with La Liga’s television deal offering a minimum of 40 million euros, promotion offers the chance to get the club back on a level footing.
“It’s changed the model,” Malango said. “In Secunda the club was losing two to three million euros per year, all of a sudden we can become profitable much sooner.”
Nash posted footage of him celebrating with fellow American investor, former Bolton Wanderers player Stu Holden this week — his vision for the island team he “fell in love with” coming to fruition faster than he could have expected.
Molango says they are the model owners.
“The club was an embarrassment before and without the Americans it was going to disappear,” he said.
“They know the sports arena. They know that investing money does not equal success. The Phoenix Suns have not won a title but they know that it’s about being smart to run a project.”
Match gate receipts averaged 35,000 euros per game this season having slumped to 4,000 when the Americans came on board. They raked in 250,000 euros from the playoff alone.
“We have created new experiences for fans, a new VIP corner which is copied from NBA, a courtside concept, we are being creative, treating fans as customers,” Molango said.
Molango said “target is staying up” next season using the core of the current squad and a few experienced editions.
With 15 million tourists arriving every year the club also hopes to tap into a captive audience. “Not many realise that Mallorca has an historic football club, we’re changing that.”
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Christian Radnedge)