Inter deal just the start as China moves up the soccer league
Chinese electronics retailer Suning Commerce Group is buying nearly 70pc of Italian soccer club Inter Milan for €270m, in the highest-profile takeover so far of a European team by a Chinese firm.
Suning, part owned by e-commerce firm Alibaba, confirmed the deal yesterday at a joint news conference in the eastern Chinese city of Nanjing with Inter Milan executives, including current majority owner and president Erick Thohir. With Chinese President Xi Jinping an avid supporter of football, Suning's deal to take control of Inter Milan is the latest step in a broad plan to create a global sports empire stretching from soccer clubs to online broadcasting.
Suning, a household name in China, already owns domestic club Jiangsu Suning, currently third in the Chinese Super League, but this is its first major overseas purchase.
"The acquisition of Inter Milan is part of Suning's strategy in the development of the sports industry," said Zhang Jindong, chairman of Suning Holdings Group, which plans to subscribe to new Inter Milan shares and buy existing shares.
"This will... help Suning to grow internationally."
A person familiar with the matter told Reuters earlier that Suning would take a 68.55pc stake in the Italian club.
The giant Italian football club said Thohir would stay on as president and become the sole minority shareholder in Inter Milan, while former president Massimo Moratti will sell off his entire stake of just under 30pc in the club.
Suning said in a separate statement that Thohir would reduce his stake to about 30pc.
Inter Milan chief executive Michael Bolingbroke told Reuters that apart from the equity stake, Suning would also take on a large portion of the loss-making club's debt. He gave no specifics.
"The popularity of the game, particularly in Asia and China, is going through a period of massive growth," Thohir said.
"This agreement with Suning Holdings Group will allow us to get much closer to our huge fan base in China and the Asia Pacific region."
Inter - which has had a lacklustre season at home, finishing fourth in the Italian league - last won the European Champions League in 2010.
Yesterday's deal tallies with President Xi's goals for Chinese sport, which include ambitious plans to create a domestic sports industry worth $850bn (€748bn( by 2025.
Xi is a keen soccer fan and wants China to one day host, and win, the World Cup tournament. Chinese investors already have minority stakes in England's Manchester City, Spain's Atletico Madrid and New York City FC.
Smaller Spanish club Espanyol and England's Aston Villa are Chinese-owned.
Inter's city rival AC Milan is also in talks to sell a majority stake to a group of Chinese investors.
Suning is also amongst the frontrunners to buy UK-based Stellar Group, one of the world's leading football agencies.
The company has said it wants to create a global sporting "ecosystem", including club ownership, sports media rights, player agencies, training institutions, broadcast platforms, content production and sports-related e-commerce.
Suning will also look to become a leader globally in sports media and online, including "creating high-quality sports content" and "establishing a professional broadcast platform". The Chinese company has annual revenues of €17.6bn. (Reuters)