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Slim’s Billionaire Rivalry Plays Out in Soccer Championship

Slim’s Billionaire Rivalry Plays Out in Soccer Championship

Mexican billionaires Carlos Slim and Emilio Azcarraga, who typically go head-to-head for phone customers and TV viewers, are taking their rivalry to the soccer field this week in their country's championship game.

Slim, the owner of the nation's biggest wireless carrier, is an investor in Club Leon, which is a finalist in Mexico's national soccer league. The team is squaring off against reigning champ Club America, controlled by TV magnate Azcarraga, in a two-game series starting tomorrow in Leon's home stadium.

Caught in the crossfire are the legions of Mexican soccer fans who won't be able to watch because of an agreement to televise the match only on cable for the first time. After Slim's America Movil SAB (AMXL) acquired a stake in Leon last year, the club signed a broadcast-rights deal with cable's Fox Sports.

That means the first match of the finals won't be available across the nation on free, over-the-air TV -- the realm dominated by Azcarraga's Grupo Televisa SAB. (TLEVICPO)

"Soccer in Mexico is not only a popular sport," said Miguel Angel Lara, a media and sports professor at Iberoamericana University in Mexico City. "It moves economic and politic interests. It's more than a sport here."

Many Mexicans watch big games in cantinas or gathered around street-food stands, whose owners mount small TVs on their carts. Only about 44 percent of Mexican households have access to cable or satellite TV, the lowest penetration rate among Latin America's biggest countries, according to data from the Latin American Multichannel Advertising Council.

Collecting Assets

The Leon investment is part of Slim's effort to collect media assets, including a stake in soccer team Club Pachuca and the rights to air the Olympics, to attract viewers to America Movil's website with exclusive programming. While the company doesn't have its own pay-TV service, it has said recent changes in Mexican law may give it the opportunity to enter the market.

Slim will also broadcast the games through America Movil's online news outlet, Uno TV Noticias, which a growing number of Mexicans with smartphones can access, according to Lara. That's aiding the billionaire in his battle against Azcarraga's Televisa, which owns the nation's most-watched over-the-air TV channel and has invested in cable TV and mobile-phone carriers, putting it directly in competition with Slim.

"Soccer is one of those scenarios where they can fight each other openly," Lara said.

Missing Out

Mexicans without access to pay TV or Internet will have to miss out on one of the most important matches of the year. Soccer is the nation's most popular sport, according to a January poll by Consulta Mitofsky. Club America, playing for its 16th first-division championship, is a divisive team. While 17 percent of respondents to the Mitofsky poll called it their favorite, trailing only Club Guadalajara, 41 percent said it's the one they hate most.

Francisco Varaquiel, 52, who sells newspapers and magazines from a street kiosk in Mexico City, won't be watching tomorrow's game.

"I'll ask people on the street what the score is," said Varaquiel, who doesn't have cable and regularly watches soccer games from home. "Watching soccer games like these, a finals game, is about the feeling, the excitement. I can usually get that at home already."

Alejandro Carrasco, 32, who sells bowls of chicken stew from his bike, said he doesn't see a need to install cable at his home. "What for? I only care about Club America."

Intensifying Rivalry

Televisa, the nation's largest broadcaster, will air the second leg of the final on Sunday when both teams play in Mexico City's Azteca Stadium, owned by Televisa. Press officials for both companies didn't reply to requests for comment.

The rivalry shows signs of intensifying further after the government approved a law this year designed to create more competition in the phone and media industries. America Movil has an option to acquire a controlling stake in Dish Mexico, the second-largest satellite-TV company, once Slim is able to obtain a TV license, a potential outcome of the reform law.

Televisa, meanwhile, is counterattacking America Movil through a mobile-phone joint venture with another broadcaster, TV Azteca SAB. (AZTECACP) That effort will get a boost if the new law succeeds in chipping away at America Movil's 70 percent share of the wireless market.

"There is an open battle," Lara said. "Slim wants to enter TV through soccer, and what better way to enter it?"

By Patricia Laya in Mexico City

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