Back on the ball with sports rights deal

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When Leo Kirch’s media group was at the height of its troubles at the start of the decade, the German mogul told an interviewer a joke about a man who thought he was dead but whose friend comforted him by pointing out that at least he was not bankrupt. “Well, I have my own version,” Mr Kirch continued. “They say I’m bankrupt. But at least I am not dead.”

This week, Mr Kirch, now 81 – whose media group collapsed in 2002 in Germany’s then largest bankruptcy – has made a dramatic comeback. His agreement to market rights to Bundesliga football matches sees him returning to doing what he likes doing best: wheeling and dealing in the entertainment and sports business.

Mr Kirch’s Sirius agency will oversee the awarding of the rights in German-speaking countries in the next two auctions, guaranteeing the Bundesliga at least €3bn income over six years. The deal returned one of Germany’s most colourful, albeit secretive, entrepreneurs to the spotlight.

Among those feeling the shockwaves on Wednesday was Premiere, the pay-TV company, whose shares fell sharply on fears that it would be hit by the Bundesliga’s attempt to boost revenues.

The return of Mr Kirch, a diabetic who has long had trouble with his eyesight, is all the more remarkable because most observers had written off his career. Mr Kirch has made headlines in recent years largely as a result of his relentless pursuit of Deutsche Bank over remarks made in early 2002 by Rolf Breuer, then Deutsche Bank chairman, that appeared to question Mr Kirch’s creditworthiness – which Mr Kirch blamed for the financial collapse of his group a few months later.

Thomas Clark, author of a Kirch biography, said that the media mogul had continued to work six days a week at his office in Munich but his legal action against Deutsche Bank “didn’t seem like a full time job”.

An earlier inkling of Mr Kirch’s planned comeback came late last month, when it emerged he had taken an 11.5 per cent stake in EM.Sports Media, the sports media group. “For a long time, people asked themselves, ‘what is he doing?’ ” recalls Mr Clark.

Mr Clark says the secret to understanding Mr Kirch is to realise what he really loves. “Leo Kirch is a trader, and the reason why he is good is that he followed the ultimate rule in trading – keep your mouth shut. So he is always coming up with something surprising.”

The son of a vintner, Mr Kirch took his first steps to becoming a dominant media figure in post-war Germany with the purchase of the rights to Fellini’s La Strada in 1956. He borrowed DM25,000 from his wife to pay for it. Over the years, he borrowed more to build a large film library – as well as acquiring broadcasting rights to World Cup football, Formula One racing and dozens of other sporting contests. As well as dominating German media, Mr Kirch had links with the political establishment and provided financial support to Helmut Kohl, the former conservative chancellor.

Five years ago, his entrepreneurial talents appeared overwhelmed. Throughout the 1990s, Mr Kirch had run short of cash and into trouble with creditors. But in April 2002, Kirchmedia fell victim to what a Commerzbank executive described at the time as its “increasing opacity and indebtedness”. This week he has proved there is life beyond bankruptcy.

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