An ex-NBA exec and gambling maestro wants to take on Real Madrid and Barcelona. Will his latest bet lift a lowly Spanish soccer team?

Bob Voulgaris is betting big that he can lift a beleaguered Spanish soccer team to the next level. Michael Nagle/Bloomberg via Getty Images

CASTELLON DE LA PLANA, Spain — On a sweltering August afternoon in a small Spanish city just a few miles inland from the Mediterranean coast, the mayor opens the door to her conference room and invites in her last meeting of the day. The guest of honor — a Canadian who has been the talk of her town for the last two weeks.

For more than a decade, Haralabos (Bob) Voulgaris has been one of the most well-known analysts in the sports world, first making a fortune using complex statistical models to win high-stakes bets on the NBA, then directing the analytics group for the Dallas Mavericks and owner Mark Cuban.

But Castelleon mayor Amparo Marco is not interested in basketball. Last month, Voulgaris purchased CD Castellon, the town’s beloved — albeit beleaguered — soccer team that plays in the Spanish third division. His purchase of CD Castellon coincidentally aligned with the 100th anniversary of the club, which hasn’t reached the top level of Spanish football — LaLiga — in more than three decades. It’s fair to say they’ve had a downward trajectory over the past half century.

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The club has spent just 11 of its 100 seasons in the top flight, just six of its last 28 campaigns above the third division, and spent a majority of the 2010s mired in the fourth division. It finished runner-up in the 1973 Copa del Rey tournament.

Accompanied by a small contingent of executives, the new club owner walks inside and settles into his seat next to the head of the table, where the mayor is eager to hear his plans. She grins as she tells Voulgaris that Castellon’s supporters are this club’s greatest attribute, before asking him about his vision.

Voulgaris told ESPN his purchase of the club was “no vanity play,” and that becomes clear as he lays out his six-year plan for the mayor. The goal is to gradually elevate Castellon up the Spanish ladder so that by the end of the decade Castellon might again play in LaLiga against rival sides like Valencia, Real Madrid and Barcelona and compete in the most prestigious matches European soccer has to offer.

“This team has the potential to be a LaLiga team,” Voulgaris said. “It has the local support from its fans, it has a very deep and rich history.”

Voulgaris is the most recent high-profile sports figure from North America to invest in European soccer, following the likes of Billy Beane — the executive vice president of the Oakland Athletics — and Jeff Luhnow — the former general manager of the Houston Astros. Both of them earned reputations as innovative minds in Major League Baseball — like Voulgaris did in the NBA — using advanced analytics to find competitive advantages in strategy and personnel.

It’s no coincidence that in the last few years they have both invested heavily in European soccer in what is becoming a fast-growing trend, in part because the market inefficiencies that once allowed them to rise to the top of their fields are now ready to be exploited on a different playing field across the Atlantic.