November 21, 2012

It was a wild and woolly week for the Spanish football club Real Oviedo. With a Nov. 17 deadline for the club to repay about $2.5 million in debts looming and no cash on hand, the club tried hitting up its existing owners for more money. That raised a good $75K. You might have heard that times are pretty tough out there.

So on Nov. 3 the club announced that it would issue stocks and sell them at $13 per share. To anyone who wanted to buy them. Over the phone. Online. Pretty please?

It was kind of a tough sell. After all, Oviedo is currently in the third tier of Spanish football, the Segunda División B. In the 38 seasons the club has been in La Liga alongside Real Madrid and Barcelona—the last time it did so was in 2000-01—Oviedo has never finished higher than third and that hasn’t happened for 50 years. In fact, the only divisions Oviedo has ever won are the Segunda (not B, the regular second division) four times—the last being in 1974-75—and the Tercera (which is really the fourth division) all four years that it has dropped that far down the Spanish football food chain.

But Oviedo is in the state of Asturias, which has a stout tradition of thumbing its nose at those in authority. Well, some people in authority. (That Real in Real Oviedo betrays the region’s traditional monarchist leanings.) Franco, really.

The Generalissimo came from the neighboring province of Galicia, and he may have been influenced by the team’s heyday before the Spanish Civil War to use have his troops use the old Estadio Carlos Tartiere as a munitions dump.

But back to the numbers game. Slowly at first, but then surely, the response started snowballing. By Sunday, Nov. 11, the stock sale—some to alums and players in other leagues, but much of it to small investors buying a handful of shares apiece—hit a million dollars without including a $125K buy-in by Real Madrid. Shockingly, a large number of the purchases were being made in Latin America and even as far away as Australia.

Much of the credit for the move to save the club going viral has to do with Simon “Sid” Lowe, the UK Guardian’s resident expert on La Liga and a longtime Oviedo fan, who set up a PayPal account for the team and tweeted like a demon. (He has nearly 100,000 followers, which puts you in the numeric neighborhood of the 200,000 or so shares the club needed to sell.)

And the power of social media almost proved enough. But in the end, it required an old-fashioned investment by an old-fashioned billionaire—the Mexican telecommunications magnate, Carlos Slim Helú—to save Oviedo.

What do I mean by old-fashioned? Slim didn’t simply top off what had been collected to make certain the club could meet it’s obligations. No, he pitched in $2.5 million so that he could become Real Oviedo’s majority owner. And why not? Slim is No. 1 on the current Forbes list of wealthiest people on the planet. (Unlike his new team, in fact, Slim hasn’t been out of the top three for five years now.)

Does anybody think that was an accident? I don’t. The man did not amass a fortune worth $68 billion in one of the most scandal-ridden countries in the world by being careless with money and numbers. Nor did he necessarily do it playing by the rules.

Doesn’t seem as if Lowe thinks so either. At noon on Nov. 17, he sent a message reading, “Naturally, I have reservations, doubts & concerns. But with c. €2m of shares bought by 13,000+ ppl round world & Slim buying €2m Oviedo safe.”

True enough. The numbers don’t lie. Not sure you can say the same thing about Slim. As long as he doesn’t start demanding that people refer to him as “Generalissimo…”

“Slim Chance,” by Bill Vourvoulias.

From “The Numbers Game,” the November 21, 2012, issue of V as in Victor.

To read more V as in Victor, download the app.