Can China’s richest man, Wang Jianlin, and Sepp Blatter’s nephew land World Cup?
New chief of Wanda Sports Holdings Philippe Blatter gives an insight into the company’s plans for the future of sport on the mainland
Wang Jianlin is on a mission. China’s richest man heard President Xi Jinping’s demand – that China must qualify for, host, and win a World Cup; recognising that the middle prong is the most likely to happen in this lifetime, he’s throwing a fair few of his billions into sport.
No doubt eyeing the off-the-charts guanxi to be had by handing Xi the tournament, the chairman of Dalian Wanda Group began his moves around two years ago, when he set in motion a bid for Infront Sports & Media, a powerful sports marketing firm, with exclusive rights to all of Fifa’s competitions.
Their president and chief executive, Philippe Blatter, has now been installed as CEO of Wanda’s sports division (if the surname sounds familiar, you wouldn’t be the first to suggest that having former Fifa president Sepp as uncle might not have hurt his career).
Wanda Sports Holdings now incorporates Infront, which works with 180 rights holders in 25 sports, the World Triathlon Corporation, which runs the popular Ironman events, and a 20 per cent stake in Spanish football team Atletico Madrid.
And while some Western companies ended their association with Fifa after the scandals that brought down Blatter Snr, for Wanda it was an opportunity: in March this year they became a top-level “partner” – the highest sponsorship level – with rights to all Fifa events up to and including the 2030 World Cup.
Not long after Wang signed the deal with the man who replaced uncle Sepp at Fifa, Gianni Infantino, Philippe Blatter spoke to the South China Morning Post in a rare interview to give insight into Wanda’s plans for sport in China and beyond – including that World Cup ambition.
“We want to be number one,” he says. “Sport is about being number 1 – one rarely remembers who number 2 was.”
Wang, who made his fortune in real estate (with The New York Times among those saying his close links to Xi were not exactly a hindrance) is not involved day-to-day, says Blatter, but regularly summons the Swiss to the capital for updates.
“I got to know chairman Wang Jianlin when we had our management presentations in Beijing [in 2014 when Infront’s private equity owners put the firm up for auction].
“That’s when I had the chance to see how strong of a sports enthusiast he is, how knowledgeable about sport he is and how passionate he was himself as owner of Dalian Wanda FC.
“I’ve seen pictures where he was sitting on the bench and directing the players and still today he knows a lot about sports. But, more importantly, he is a very inspirational, a visionary leader and he takes a lot of time to help us achieve our goals”
Wanda has also been making massive investments in movies and tourism and Blatter is regularly in Beijing with leaders of other arms to update Wang on the state of his empire.
“He takes time to meet and discuss strategic and visionary elements with us, rather than micromanaging.” says Blatter. “That’s the great thing about the Wanda Group: they understand the value that companies like Infront or Ironman can contribute.
“We’re not producing a tangible product, we’re delivering events and therefore our people are our main asset – not just the management team but all the people … He understands this and his philosophy is to let the management in charge and trust the management to do the right thing.”
Wang said in announcing the Fifa sponsorship deal that Western companies that decided not to renew their partnerships in the wake of the corruption scandal “will surely regret it”. Since the 2022 World Cup is in Asia (Qatar), under Fifa’s current rules the earliest China could host is 2030.
But given the vast sums being spent by Wanda and other firms – Wang said other Chinese companies are also likely to back Fifa – one wonders if the rules might be bent.
Meanwhile, Blatter says Wanda will have further announcements in the near future about their plans to boost football in the country. Infront’s partnerships with Serie A and the German Football Federation may see them involved.
“China’s expressed target is to qualify, host and at one point in time also win a World Cup,” he says. “This is an admirable goal and the CFA is working very hard to achieve it.
“Likewise, Chairman Wang is very committed to developing football in China and beyond. His investment in Atletico Madrid allows young Chinese players to go to Spain and learn about playing football, with the intention that they will come back and contribute their skills to China.
“He is [also] teaming up with Fifa to promote the Wanda brand globally through the Fifa platform.”
The Swiss is in no doubt that hosting the tournament would be a massive “soft power” boost for Xi.
“Hosting a World Cup is something very unique and it changes the way the rest of the world sees that country – for five weeks, and before and after the tournament, the world is focused on that country.
“I do believe that one day China will host the Fifa World Cup. It’s a country with 1.3 billion sports enthusiasts. When that may happen, depends on many different factors. It has to be a key priority for the government as well as the new Fifa congress altogether.”
In the immediate future, Blatter and Wanda are hoping to cash in on China’s rising middle class as they, having bought the apartment and flash car, turn their attention and disposable income to other pursuits. With partnerships with seven of the key Winter Olympics federations, Infront will also be heavily involved with Beijing 2022.
“I’ve been to China nearly 100 times in the last 11 years as we’ve built the Infront China office and our relationship with the CBA. I always visit the country with humility, because each time I learn and discover something new,” he says.
“The growth here [in sports as a contribution to GDP] is much larger than the rest of the world. Specifically in China there have been quite a few changes in the last 24 months - the most notable is the increased role of the government in fostering the development of sports. I think this is the impact of the new leadership in China, and good proof are the reforms passed to further develop and promote football.
“Along with this, we see a liberalisation of the media market, which again has a positive impact. Good examples that we’ve seen lately of this support are all the emerging platforms and the increase of value paid for different rights.
“Another element to consider is the rise of a new middle class. China’s middle class is about 110 million people, which is already as big as the US’s middle class, and it is estimated to double in the next 2-3 years.
“This demographic offers us – and the broader Chinese sports market – a lot of potential: they want to stay healthy, they are positive about the future, and they have disposable income for leisure, sports, education, and travel.
“Since they have the interest, the time and the money to focus on their health, they are likely to both participate in and consume sports – as spectators onsite or viewed on TV.”
And as for his uncle? Blatter no longer has the direct hotline to football’s most powerful man, but it’s clear that has dented his standing in Wang’s eyes.
“What happened at Fifa is very bad for sports and it’s very bad for football,” is all he’ll say, carefully not naming the man most hold most responsible.
“I am confident that the authorities and the investigation, internally or externally, will reach the true conclusion. The entire football community trusts and wishes very strongly that the new president Gianni Infantino and the rest of his team will pass the new reforms and implement them to restore Fifa to the reputation it deserves, and that football deserves.
“When you consider what Mr. Infantino has done at Uefa, the success he has achieved and the fact that the Fifa congress trusted him to lead in this very difficult situation, it speaks a lot.
“Those who voted for him knew him much better than I do. The fact that he got such strong support proves that he is viewed very highly within the world of football and I trust that he will be able to turn around the situation and implement the reforms to bring Fifa and football back to where it needs to be.”