Cash-rich Chinese target overseas sporting interests

London // Football’s popularity ensures the sales and purchases of clubs such as Manchester City and AC Milan attract widespread global scrutiny but Chinese investors have targeted a wide spectrum of overseas sporting interests in recent years.

Last year was a busy one for the Dalian Wanda group, for instance. The Chinese conglomerate purchased Infront Sports & Media for US$1.2 billion, splashed out $650 million for the World Triathlon Corporation (also known as Ironman) and paid $45.8m (Dh168m) for a 20 per cent stake in Atletico Madrid.

Wang Jianlin is the chairman of the Wanda Group, ranked by Forbes as the richest man in China with an estimated fortune of $12.3bn and he is extremely upbeat about the investment opportunities within the sports industry.

“Wanda has a very high expectation for the development and prospects of the sports industry,” he says.

“The significance of establishing Wanda Sports is not only to integrate Wanda’s interests in sports, but also to truly expand and strengthen Wanda’s businesses in the industry, while at the same time grasping the rapidly growing opportunities in the Chinese sports market.

“We want to truly impact the development of sport around the world.”

The biggest deal in sports history was completed earlier this year. Dalian Wanda was one of a number of Chinese investors among the various groups and consortiums willing to pay upwards of $4bn to acquire mixed martial arts (MMA) franchise the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).

In the end the American owners opted to sell the UFC for $4.2bn to a group led by the Hollywood talent agency WWE-IMG. China Media Capital, the firm that owns 13 per cent of Manchester City, and Dalian Wanda were ultimately frustrated in their attempts to own a part of the number one MMA promotion on the planet.

The UFC will go down as the one that got away but Chinese investment in European sport continues unabated. The billion-dollar Dalian Wanda deal to acquire Infront Sports & Media was notable because it showed that companies providing sports-related services can be even more valuable than the teams, players, competitions and leagues they represent.

Other major sports marketing companies have attracted the interest of Chinese investors. This year the Chinese brokerage Everbright Securities and the internet entertainment company Beijing Baofeng Technology created a bespoke investment vehicle to purchase a 60 per cent stake in sports media rights firm MP & Silva.

The deal valued the London based company, which has 20 offices around the world, at more than $1bn. The Everbright chief executive Xue Feng stated that the sheer appetite of the Chinese market for international sports made MP & Silva an attractive investment opportunity.

“China has the most sports fans in the world and the sports market here is now one of the hottest investment sectors,” he said at the time.

Meanwhile, the Stellar Group, a football agency boasting Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale – now the second-most expensive footballer in the world after the Paul Pogba deal – among its clients, is reportedly the subject of a $140 million bidding war between various Chinese groups. Among the interested parties is the Suning Group, which also owns a 70 per cent stake in Inter Milan.

Across the globe sporting leagues and competitions are salivating at the possibility of attracting Chinese investment. Sheffield recently signed a deal to host the World Snooker Championship for the next decade and spokesman for the city’s council stated: “We are currently pursuing a number of potential investment enquiries from China, stemming from a strong local Chinese community, our two great universities and the profile that Sheffield has there. Securing World Snooker is a vital part of that investment strategy.”

An audience of 45 million Chinese reportedly tuned into the final of this year’s World Snooker Championship on the state operated terrestrial channel CCTV5. They would have been disappointed to see Ding Junhui beaten 18-14 by the world number one Mark Selby but the viewing figures show that Chinese audiences are interested in a wide spectrum of sporting events.

Australian Rules Football is relatively unknown outside of the eponymous nation. But that did not stop CCTV from entering into a deal with the Australian Football League (AFL) to broadcast one match a week, with 3.87 million people in China tuning in to Port Adelaide’s round five game with Geelong in April.

China is the most populous country on the planet and has the world’s second-largest economy by nominal GDP.

It represents the single largest sporting audience in the world and Chinese investors are setting their sights not just set on clubs and leagues but on agencies, rights firms and even marketing companies.

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