China Wins the World Cup of Soccer Spending

 | Jun 13, 2017 | 2:00 PM EDT
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China could simply pay out to host the World Cup, but the Middle Kingdom is a long way from winning one. Hell, it can't even qualify.

China is, however, winning the soccer World Cup of investment. Over the last three years, Chinese companies and individuals have shelled out €2.15 billion ($2.4 billion) on stakes in soccer clubs, buying across Europe's major leagues. 

The United States is the next-largest source nation, at €313 million ($351 million), but China's tally is 7x that amount, according to fresh analysis of the topic by SportsLinking, a division of cross-border mergers and acquisitions adviser ThinkingLinking.

In fact, China's total was more than the other 40 nations tracked by the company. China has burst on the scene essentially from nowhere since President Xi Jinping set a goal in 2011 for the country to win the World Cup. The National Development & Reform Commission in 2016 targeted making China a "world football superpower" by 2050.

Xi, an ardent fan himself of the football you play with your feet, is desperate to see China do well. A handful of Chinese players have already made it to the big leagues in Europe, led by the defender Sun Jihai. Sun made a name for himself at Manchester City, and was the first Chinese player to score in England's Premier League. 

But the buyouts often stem from a personal desire to buy into soccer, the leading televised sport in Asia, by Chinese tycoons. Their sudden emergence on the world stage does, however, mesh with Beijing's wish for China to expand its overseas investments.

"China just decided to do it - both at the government and company level," Mark Dixon, ThinkingLinking's "chief thinking officer," says. "It's the result of the country's sheer ambition to become a major player in this field globally and to bring home the know-how and kudos from each of these wins."

One of the largest deals saw China Media Capital, which owns the TV rights to the Chinese Super League, invest €378 million for a 13% stake in Manchester City, which sees it buddy up with the royal family of Abu Dhabi. Fosun International (FOSUY)  has bought the English club Wolverhampton Wanderers.

But the purchases aren't all that large. The Recon Group spent €98 million to purchase Aston Villa, from England's second-largest city, Birmingham. The team is one of the oldest in England, but was relegated from the Premier League in 2016.

The Premier League and the Spanish top flight, La Liga, are the two most powerful leagues at the moment. So the Chinese buyers have smartly looked to Italy for some of their shopping. Those clubs once led the world in spending but, somewhat like the country itself, fell victim to large debt burdens.

Italy has made up more than half the Chinese spending. Suning Commerce Group SZ:002024 put down €270 million to buy Inter Milan, one of Italy's top-three clubs. But it has a relatively small fan base in Asia, compared to the biggest English and Spanish teams.

Buyers can therefore look to expand their market by bringing teams on pre-season tours of Asia, setting up affiliations with Asian soccer teams, and selling a bunch of shirts.

Inter's fierce rival A.C. Milan, champions of Europe on no fewer than seven occasions, is the latest major "signing" by Chinese buyers, as I wrote about when the deal went down in April. The $788 million buyout is a smart investment since the team is one of the most-storied in Europe, and again is well-known in Asia without having an ardent following.

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