Khimki Fans Fall Victim To Crisis

The Moscow region government said Tuesday that it was merging two local football clubs, but for many fans in the town of Khimki the announcement meant that they would be left with no team at all.

The administration said the move was being made to cut costs in the face of the financial crisis, which has drastically reduced corporate profits and wealth and could spell the end of many of the country's football clubs.

The move was presented by the administration as necessary to save football in the region.

"Because of the difficult financial situation … in order to maintain the football potential and established football traditions, there is a clear need to combine the efforts of Saturn and Khimki," Governor Boris Gromov's press service said in a news release.

"We have to understand the necessity for this decision, especially given the global financial crisis," Saturn CEO Boris Zhiganov said in a message posted on the team's web site.

Khimki is clearly the loser in the deal, given that the new club will keep the name Saturn and continue to play at its old grounds in the town of Ramenskoye. Saturn's home field is located about 30 kilometers to the southeast of Moscow, on the opposite side from Khimki, a suburb to the northwest of the city.

The announcement came a day after the region approved its budget for 2009, which called for cuts of 810 million rubles ($29 million) in funding for the region's sports committee, which operated the two clubs.

Regional budget cuts are likely to affect other teams across the country, said Georgy Cherdantsev, a television sports analyst at NTV Plus, who called the decision to merge the teams "ridiculous."

"No one considers merging Manchester United and Manchester City together, and they are in the same city," Cherdantsev said.

A source within the Moscow region administration, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment, said it provided financing for a number of the region's 56 top league franchises.

"The mechanism for merging Saturn and Khimki and the quotas for combining the two squads are still being worked out," the source said. He was unable to say how running the teams was costing the region.

Cherdantsev said government sponsorship was a problem for professional sports in the country in general.

"There is no legislation to formalize private club sponsorship," he said.

Current economic conditions also raise doubts about the viability of many privately-owned and funded clubs.

Metals giant Norilsk Nickel said Monday that it would be "reducing sponsorship expenditures, i.e. sports clubs."

The company owns four clubs, including men's basketball powerhouse CSKA of the Russian Super League and the Euroleague.

A Norilsk spokesman could not provide details Tuesday on how the cuts might affect the teams, saying only that plans are "under discussion."

Norilsk CEO Vladimir Strzhalkovsky said last month in an interview with Vedomosti that he would "happily" sell the company's sports assets if a buyer could be found.

Mikhail Prokhorov, former chairman at Norilsk, expressed interest in May in buying the teams from the company. In a recent posting on his personal blog, he indicated that his sports focus has turned to biathlon after the Russian Biathlon Union elected him president at the end of October.

LUKoil, the chief sponsor of Moscow's Spartak football club, is also in the process of deciding whether to reduce its funding, said LUKoil spokesman Vladimir Senakov. Spartak, which has signed a number of foreign players to multimillion-dollar contracts in the last two years, is owned by LUKoil vice president Leonid Fedun.

State-owned Gazprom bought a controlling share of St. Petersburg football club Zenit in 2005 and has since spent about $100 million on contracts for foreign players and a Dutch coach.

No one contacted at Gazprom on Tuesday could comment on whether the company would cut spending on the team.

The huge sports budgets fueled by burgeoning corporate revenues of recent years are likely to be scaled down significantly next year, said David Watts, a sports marketing consultant at Global Sports Consulting.

"In Russia, most teams are not close to making a profit, but are supported by rich owners that are fans of the sport and are essentially vanity projects," Watts said, adding that budgets have mushroomed in recent years.

With the personal wealth of the country's biggest business tycoons taking a hit in the billions of dollars over the last two months, nonessential spending like team sponsorship will be among the first things to get cut.

"The crisis shake-up may actually be beneficial to football in general, as the industry has been snowballing out of control," Cherdantsev added, saying the quality of the game has not improved at the same pace as spending.

By European standards, watching football in the Moscow region is still a relatively inexpensive pastime, with Saturn VIP season tickets costing just 5,000 rubles (about $180), according to the club's web site.

But most Khimki fans are likely to pass on the deal.

Supporters pleaded for the survival of their team in an open letter to Gromov and Federal Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko on the Khimki fan forum site on Tuesday.

"You are depriving thousands of people of their home club … [our emotions] are similar to those brought on by death of a loved one — such wounds do not heal, nor are they forgotten," the letter said.

"There is no question of merging with Saturn fans," one fan, who gave his name as Sergei, said by telephone Tuesday, adding that he had supported Khimki since it was founded in 1996 — ironically, by the merger of two amateur teams in the town. "Our relations with Saturn have always been terrible."