QUERETARO, Mexico, Feb 27 (Reuters) - When Brazilian soccer superstar Ronaldinho signed for struggling Mexican team Queretaro in September, Olegario Vazquez Aldir, the club’s new owner, took a step closer to becoming the country’s next media mogul.
Although Ronaldinho, a two-time FIFA World Player of the Year, is well past his best, he is still one of the glitziest footballers ever to play in Mexico and signing him for $2 million a year was a coup for Vazquez Aldir as he uses soccer to muscle into Mexico’s plutocrats’ club.
The second-generation boss of privately owned media, hotels, construction and hospitals firm Grupo Empresarial Angeles (GEA), Vazquez Aldir is widely expected to land at least one of two new public television networks to be auctioned in March.
If he wins, the 42-year-old Vazquez Aldir will gain a new avenue to shape public opinion and strengthen his business empire.
And because Mexican soccer teams sell their TV rights, Ronaldinho, 34, could help lure viewers and advertisers to the new network and allow Vazquez Aldir to cash in on the market of millions of soccer-mad Mexican fans in the United States.
“This couldn’t have been a better opportunity for us,” Vazquez Aldir told a news conference after buying Queretaro.
By acquiring the club, Vazquez Aldir also boosts his own profile, joining the likes of telecoms billionaire Carlos Slim, broadcaster Televisa’s Emilio Azcarraga and TV Azteca’s Ricardo Salinas, whose soccer teams bolstered their media empires and political clout.
After buying Leon and Pachuca in 2012, Slim took their games off free-to-air TV, a duopoly controlled by rivals Televisa and TV Azteca, and distributed them over his online channels while selling the pay-TV rights to Fox Sports in Mexico and Telemundo in the United States.
Vazquez Aldir, who declined to comment for this article, has given little detail about his plans for Queretaro.
But a source with knowledge of the firm said he had wanted to buy a soccer club since before GEA’s media unit, Grupo Imagen, got its first free-to-air TV concession in 2006. The company also runs the pay-TV news channel, Excelsior TV.
“The company’s culture has always been to become one of the largest business conglomerates in Mexico,” said Maria Elena Meneses, who spent three years inside Grupo Imagen to observe the company for her doctoral research.
“I think they’re interested in the media unit because it allows them to lobby for their business interests.”
Only two companies are in the running for the tender, which will create two new national TV networks. Televisa and TV Azteca own a majority of local TV concessions across the country.
The auction is a result of President Enrique Pena Nieto’s overhaul of Mexico’s telephone and TV markets, which are dominated by Slim and Azcarraga.
However, if Vazquez Aldir does win the auction, it could raise questions about a reform supposedly designed to take power away from media barons.
“The governments of recent years have created multi-millionaires,” said telecoms analyst Gabriel Sosa Plata, referring to the telephone concession awarded to Slim that he used to become one of the world’s richest men.
“It’s a kind of tragedy. Here in Mexico the big companies and millionaires are the ones who are going to keep determining the rules of the game.”
Prodemex, GEA’s construction arm, was last year involved in a tainted rail tender, scrapped after another Mexican firm in the winning Chinese-led consortium was implicated in a conflict-of-interest scandal that engulfed Pena Nieto.
Vazquez Aldir’s father, who built the family business, hosts regular gatherings of Mexican business leaders, including Slim, in the small Spanish town of Avion.
Vazquez Aldir, a fan of mariachi music who cites futurists Alvin Toffler and George Friedman as influences, is trying to expand his TV business even as the industry faces new pressures with viewers flocking to sites like Netflix.
But in Mexico, where Internet penetration hovers around just 40 percent and government ad spend is enormous, TV channels give their owners political clout and allow them to lobby for favorable regulation for their other businesses.
If Vazquez Aldir wins the tender, some analysts expect him to follow Televisa’s example and look for a tie-up with a telecoms operator. In 2011, Vazquez Aldir said he would look to list each of GEA’s units individually, but that he was in no rush.
“They are on the cusp of the big league,” said a source who advises GEA on its business strategy. “They’re not a public and transparent company ... so that’s really the next test.” ($1 = 14.95 Pesos) (Reporting by Gabriel Stargardter; Editing by Simon Gardner and Kieran Murray)