The new billionaire owner of Southampton is replacing one football battle with another

Serbian-born media billionaire Dragan Solak is used to paying for the rights to broadcast Premier League matches, but with the takeover of Southampton Football Club for 100 million British pounds, he turned things around.

“If you look at the inflation of the prices of elite sports rights. . . “I thought if I was going to go crazy, then I’d rather be involved in sports clubs than in the broadcasting business,” Solak told the Financial Times, 57.

United Group, the European media company that Solak founded more than 20 years ago, owned the rights to screen Premier League matches in the Balkans. But his raid on Southampton came when United lost the last rights to a government-backed rival who offered roughly 10 times more than what his Amsterdam-based company had paid before.

Telecom Serbia will screen Premier League matches in the region next season, after agreeing to a 600m-euro deal over six years.

Solak described the amount as “ridiculous” and said the deal was part of efforts to damage United, which he says owns and broadcasts Serbia’s last remaining independent news organizations, and to support the government of President Aleksandar Vucic.

With several Serbian households subscribing to several cable cables, football is a great attraction for many to switch to Telecom Serbia – a rating that is valued given that the broadcaster carries little government-critical content, Solak said.

Vucic and the government face elections on April 3rd and are expected to retain power.

“From next year [Telekom Srbija] there will be practically 100 percent of football and other sports. They will be able to take a significant number of subscribers from [United’s] network, “Solak said. “Then [those subscribers] will no longer be able to follow the news. That’s the whole deal. “

Telecom Serbia has denied political motivation. It says the company “finances its deals solely from its own financial resources and capacity” and that joining the Premier League will “have a total positive financial impact of well over € 1 billion”.

United filed a lawsuit against Serbia last year before the International Center for the Settlement of Investment Disputes, the global arbitration body, accusing it of violating a bilateral investment agreement with the Netherlands by reducing its market share and promoting Telekom Serbia’s interests.

Vucic’s government says Solak and United support the opposition and has ties to Dragan Djilas, a former mayor of Belgrade and former president of the Democratic Party of Serbia.

Solak denies any connection to Djilas or any political motivation in Serbia, noting that carrying independent news is a business consideration.

The Premier League connection to Telecom Serbia comes when critics question its relationship with state-backed organizations following its decision to approve Saudi Arabia’s takeover of Newcastle United. The clubs were so outraged by the deal that they forced league chairman Gary Hoffman to resign.

Peter Horox, former director of the BBC World Service and a member of the editorial board of the United N1 news service, wrote to Premier League chief Richard Masters last year to warn that his matches are being “used” by the Serbian government. intent to silence its critics and stifle media freedom.

A person close to the Premier League said that Telekom Srbija had won a competitive process and that some rights deals had jumped in value in recent years.

The league’s domestic deal with Sky, BT and Amazon remained unchanged at £ 5 billion, but the value of US rights almost tripled to $ 2.7 billion in six years.

Telekom Srbija stated that it had paid exactly the prices necessary. . . in such a competitive environment ”.

United, which has quadrupled its profit before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization to 1 billion euros over the past three years with revenues of 2 billion euros, is controlled by private equity firm BC Partners, although Solak retains a minority stake of just over 33 percent.

He said the group was offering 35 million euros per season, “an offer I signed crying” because under its existing contract, United “pays 11 million euros [a year and] they are hardly leveling off. “

Marko Milosavljevic, a professor of journalism at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia, described United as the “natural enemy number one of the Serbian president”.

“Vucic is trying to gain full media control in Serbia,” he said. “If you … by reducing their sports content, you can limit the strength of United, the only votes of the opposition,” he added.

Billionaire Dragan Solak says Serbian government seeks to control media through sports rights © James Marsh / Shutterstock

Solak lives in Switzerland and says he avoids traveling to Serbia due to fears for his safety.

He emphasized that Southampton was a “private investment” that had “nothing to do” with the policies of the United States or Serbia. Although the purchase will entitle him to attend league meetings, “I do not want to abuse my position,” he insisted.

Solak is a leading investor in the newly formed Sport Republic, which acquired an 80% stake in Southampton for approximately £ 100 million. The full estimate of £ 200 million to £ 250 million includes the club’s debt.

He hopes the stakes for growing competition for broadcasting rights will pay off in Southampton, where the pandemic helped boost revenue to £ 126 million in the 2019/20 season, up from £ 144 million a year earlier.

Sport Republic aims to take high-impact stakes in more football teams and sporting assets, in a model similar to that of Premier League champion Manchester City. The investment instrument was founded by Rasmus Ankersen, former co-director of football at Brentford, and Henrik Kraft, a former partner in the private investment company KKR, which sold United to BC Partners.

But Solak has indicated he will not fund the big-money signatures football fans crave: “I’m not the Sheikh of Abu Dhabi or the Prince of Saudi Arabia,” he said in a nod to rival owners. “I can’t bring in 500 million to buy new players.”

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