Economic meltdown & fan violence stifling Greek sport

ATHENS - A maelstrom of the country's financial meltdown, a threatened cut in state funding to less popular sporting activities and football violence has combined to put Greek sport at the edge of a numbing precipice.

The multi-billion euro EU-IMF rescue package announced last week has restored a measure of optimism, but the nation's top sporting figures are expecting hard times, with less popular sports expected to be hit hardest by budget cuts.

Greece has embarked on the huge task of cutting its deficit from nearly 14 percent of GDP to 3 percent by 2014 to meet the conditions of the EU/IMF aid.

"From what has been said by the government, the budgets of all federations will be reduced," Spyros Kapralos, the president of the Hellenic Olympic Committee (HOC), told Reuters.

"The biggest cuts will be in low category sports. From what I know, the amounts will be drastically reduced."

Kapralos is fronting a number of HOC projects aimed at attracting private sector sponsorships, such as the opening of the iconic Panathinean Marble stadium to tourists.

"The state also had difficulties last year, so that is why it is even more important to focus on programmes in attracting investment from the private sector," added Kapralos.

"Greek sport is used to state funding and this must change. People have to realise that attracting money from the private sector is the way forward," he added.

"It's more difficult to raise money from sponsorships in the current climate obviously so it's about being smart."

FEELING THE EFFECTS

The effects of the crisis are already being felt by Greece's two most popular sports, football and basketball.

Attendances in the nation's top football division have slowed dramatically compared with previous seasons, with an increase of just 1.06% for the current season compared to increases of 17.2% and 33.52% in the two previous campaigns.

"The crisis is certainly impacting Greek football," Super League executive director Patrick Komninos told Reuters.

"We are working hard, though, to ensure all clubs share in revenues sponsorship deals and broadcasting rights deals so clubs have a steady cash flow throughout the season."

In March, the Greek government angered football bosses by suspending funding from state-owned betting company OPAP - a contract worth more than 50 million euro over three years - until crowd violence is stamped out.

"One cannot be sure that violence will be eliminated by cutting revenues," Komninos commented on the controversial move. "Financial sanctions should only be imposed on the clubs that have caused violence instead of blanketing all clubs."

It has proved a widely unpopular move, and one which will put an extra strain on budgets should it continue, according to Kostas Piladakis, the president of Super League club Larissa.

"I don't believe that this decision helps to solve the problem of violence one little bit," he told Reuters.

In basketball, one merger in the top flight has already taken place this season due to financial problems, with Olympia Larissa joining forces with AEL 1964 last December.

"It's fair to say that the majority of the clubs are struggling to keep it up," A1 League president Vasilis Ikonomidis told Reuters.

"TV revenue and sponsorship deals have taken a knock, affecting clubs' incomes significantly."

The majority of clubs are run in an unorthodox manner with often a single person or family continuing to plough money in despite losses.

And while the two big Athens clubs, Panathinaikos and Olympiakos spent more than 35 million euros each on player contracts alone last season, there is a massive gulf between them and the rest of the division.

"Panathinaikos and Olympiakos have never posted positive financial results, simply because their owners spend the money hoping to win trophies and do not perceive their ownership as a profitable business," added Ikonomidis.

"It's something unassailably weird but entirely true. Obviously that's a mentality we have to change."

Not everything is doom and gloom, however. Super League football outfit Larissa, despite enduring a difficult season on the pitch, are investing in a 45 million euro project including a new 16,000-capacity stadium which boasts two shopping malls, tennis courts, cinemas, cafe bars and restaurants.

"Larissa has of course been affected by the crisis just as the rest of Greek football, especially regarding sponsorships," said Piladakis, whose sound financial planning has made the Thessaly club one of the better examples to follow.

"Although we have managed to limit any financial problems and over the next two years and I hope to start seeing the first signs of recovery.

"Generally, there are really many problems financially in Greek football, especially the teams that have public sector debt," he added.

"Successive governments until now have shown too much tolerance in not collecting debts or not rearranging them."

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