In an exclusive interview with Greek Reporter, the Managing Director of SKAI Media Group and Panathinaikos FC fans’ coalition group, President Yiannis Alafouzos, talked about the future of the Greek team, the goal of Panathinaiki Symmaxia (Panathinaikos Alliance), with the help of its dedicated fans around the world to reverse the negative economic outlook of the team, and the interaction with the Diaspora. Alafouzos commented on football hooliganism dominating Greek sports, politics and the financial crisis, as well as the Greek media’s status in the debt-ridden country.
Yiannis Alafouzos is a member of a successful Greek shipping family. After taking the lead from his father, he was not afraid to invest in different business areas, although these are tough times in Greece. A few years ago he renewed operation of the Greek TV station SKAI – one of the most popular Greek news TV stations – and this year he became involved with Panathinaikos, one of Greece’s dominant soccer teams.
So why would somebody who has has been successful continuing his family’s tradition in shipping want to bother with all these risky business ventures? “We are citizens and we have to get involved in our society, if we don’t, how will society progress? We are members of the Greek society and we have to care,” he said. There’s something unique about a Greek business figure such as Alafouzos who is not afraid to share his thoughts even when it comes to corruption in Greece and the Greek soccer league.
What made you decide to turn to football and more particularly to Panathinaikos FC in the first place, since you have already had a successful career in the shipping and media business?
Panathinaikos FC has some 1,600,000 fans in Greece and many more around the world. I thought that if all fans mobilized to stabilize the finances of the team and help get it back on its feet, then Panathinaikos would stand a chance of competing against some of the major European football squads. Establishing the Panathinaiki Alliance almost a month ago was somewhat a personal challenge, because I strongly believe that if none of us does something, nothing can be done by itself. Football is a very important part of the Greek life and culture, and therefore deserves our attention.
Do you believe that football in Greece has the prospects of becoming a healthy operation?
The current debt crisis will inevitably reshape things, make them either better or worse. Greece will either become a totally-corrupted country or regain values and ideas that had been lost during the fake prosperity times of the past years.
So, tell us a bit more about the Panathinaki Alliance concept and how this came to life?
I was impressed by the fact that the Greek football clubs could not compete with the European ones. The only competitive characteristic of the Greek teams is their fans’ numbers. Unlike other European countries Greece has actually four main teams and many smaller ones: Olympiacos, Panathinaikos, AEK and PAOK. Thus, it is absolutely necessary to mobilize the fans right away, so that any Greek team has a chance of enjoying a similar budget like a European one. Of course, salvation will take more than a day to come. Panathinaiki Alliance is an NGO that brings 55% of the team’s shares into the hands of its fans. At this moment, the Alliance features 7,000 members that control a percentage of shares based on the money invested or donated to the coalition group and have earned one vote in the decision making process of the team. Moreover, the members have the right to also stand as candidates for any position within the organization. This is a very positive aspect of the Alliance and puts the future and viability of the team beyond any personal profit, since this is an one-way procedure where fans give and the team takes.
Panathinaikos FC is one of the Greek teams that take part in championships outside Greece. How do you intend to work with the Greek Diaspora?
It has been a mistake that to date Panathinaikos FC had not organized any official tours in big cities abroad, where the major presence of fans can be found. There have been made some efforts but only on a small-scale level. This year the EURO 2012 Championship left no room for any further initiatives. But I truly believe the team would benefit if we start looking abroad and deliver to our fans there. Hopefully, good organization in the future would allow Panathinaikos to tour the US, Europe and Australia and organize events there.
What about hooliganism and the awfully wrong picture the Greek football fields have cultivated? Is there anything to be done against the violent behavior of football fans in Greece?
This is a problem that can be mastered. Organized fans of all Greek teams must stay in closer contact with the team’s administration in order to assume their responsibilities. It is only a minority of Greek fans that cause all the trouble in the fields. Violent outbursts on behalf of Panathinaikos fans occurred last year because the fans thought that they had been wronged by the repeated wins of Olympiacos that used complicated means to get the trophies. The former owner of Olympiacos, Socratis Kokkalis, was extremely interested in maintaining his political power and influence in the country through the team, since his business activities were directly linked to the contracts he signed with the Greek public sector.
Furthermore, the winner of the Greek championship Europa League earns lots of money for ranking first and competing at the Champions League, which is a very good reason for striving to win the title each year. Every year, the Super League winner takes some 20,000,000 Euros apart from the TV rights. So yes, I would say that a poor management from the administration adds oil to the flame of hooliganism. We cannot also ignore the fact that the Greek fans are frustrated over the crisis, unemployment, corruption and lawlessness. It is very easy to let go of your anger when you are amidst the crowd of a football field. And football is not the only field of human activity generating violent phenomena. What about politics and the subsequent fanaticism? Greece is a country with a high level of tolerance toward delinquency. The solution would be to gradually start implementing the laws and things would change over time.
Do you think that the Alliance project will actually help make Panathinaikos FC a sustainable Greek team?
In 40 days the Alliance recruited 7,000 members. If this number reaches 40,000 members, then our team would become sustainable but this requires time. Things cannot change overnight. The current debt of the team needs time to be reduced. With approximately 100,000 e-members and an average of 200 Euros contribution for each fan per year, the team’s budget would double and soon enough become able to ensure the team’s viability.
Changing the subject, in 2005 you returned from the UK and took over the direction of SKAI News. Tell us a bit about this entrepreneurship.
The truth is that the original model followed at SKAI News was the wrong one and soon I came to realize that scoring high in the TV ratings does not necessarily mean success. It all comes down to the budget in the end. Having the right budget is extremely important for every business move. In my new attempt to run the TV channel I had the right budget, a better organization and planning in mind.
Are you worried for SKAI because many media in Greece are shutting down lately? Was it maybe too much for a country of only 10,000,000 people?
SKAI News will not suffer any losses this year due to its properly organized and rightly-managed household. Many press and TV media are shutting down because their influence in the Greek politics is fading away and they cannot survive without public money. The 80’s and 90’s are long gone and media sources are losing ground in shaping politics and the public opinion, so that they do not longer need to operate. And as I said before, it’s the budget that makes things work or not. You cannot have a TV channel that offers all possible TV programs. It simply takes more money that it can bring in.
And, finally, what do you think about the current political scene in Greece?
At first I was pessimistic about the new coalition government mainly due to the past experiences. Most political leaders used populist rhetoric and hid the truth from the Greek people. I am glad they proved me wrong. I did have my concerns about the Prime Minister, Antonis Samaras, but so far things are going well. The current government scheme is fragile. Take as an example the private sector, which is suffering from the dismissals but is paying for all the taxes that allow the public sector to operate. All parties promised a lot before the elections, so they have to overcome their differences before reaching any concessions or agreements. The three governing parties know that if they fail to coexist, they are directly threatened to dissolve. I hope this fear will keep them long enough together and manage to lead the country out of the crisis.
(For more info about Panathinaiki Summaxia: www.paomprosta.gr)