Mergers & Acquisitions

Chinese tycoon Gao Jisheng buys Southampton for a seat in planet’s most-viewed sports league

Several Chinese buyers had been chasing the Saints for more than a year, but some were shut out by Beijing’s crackdown on overseas deals, sources say

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 August, 2017, 2:35pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 August, 2017, 10:58pm

Gao Jisheng, the founder and chairman of Lander Sports Development Co., has bought control of Southampton Football Club, becoming the second Chinese tycoon to own a piece of the top tier of English football in the most widely viewed sports league on the planet.

Gao paid £210 million (US$ 272 million) to buy 80 per cent of Southampton, using his personal wealth instead of his company’s funds, beating back a Chinese buyout fund’s offer of £180 million, according to a source. The buyout fund later gave up pursuing the deal when Chinese regulators stepped up their scrutiny of overseas takeovers, which would have prevented it from remitting its funds abroad for the acquisition, said the source, declining to be named when discussing a confidential transaction.

Southampton’s current owner Katharina Liebherr will retain 20 per cent of the club. “I am pleased to confirm talks to bring in a new partner to our club have been concluded,” she said in a letter to the club’s fans on Monday. “Following extensive and fruitful work, we are entering into a partnership with the Gao family and I am excited about what we will achieve together.”

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The acquisition, which was signed in late January this year, had been sealed before China’s government regulators brought the gates down on outsized overseas purchases by some of the country’s largest private entrepreneurs.

In June, the government singled out several of these entrepreneurs – Anbang Group, HNA Group, Fosun Group and Wanda Group – for scrutiny, including the buyer of AC Milan football club.

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With the deal, Southampton joins West Bromwich Albion, Aston Villa and Birmingham City among English football teams sold to Chinese buyers. Chinese tycoons have been making a beeline for overseas football clubs ever since Xi Jinping – a self professed football fan – ascended to China’s presidency in 2012. A consortium of Chinese companies led by the country’s largest conglomerate Citic Capital and China Media Capital (CMG) swooped in to pay US$400 million for 13 per cent of Manchester City football club in December 2015, hot on the heels of Xi’s visit to the city.

Southampton, also known as the Saints since the club’s establishment in 1885, finished eighth out of the 20 teams competing in the 2016-2017 English Premier League season. The club won the FA Cup once, in 1976, and its highest-ever league finish was second in the what was then the First Division in the 1983-1984 season.

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The south-coast club were in England’s third tier as recently as 2011, but they have been in the top flight since 2012 and reached last season’s League Cup final.

Their feted youth academy launched the careers of players including club great Matt Le Tissier, Arsenal pair Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Real Madrid star Gareth Bale.

Among the English Football League Championship, the second-highest in the English football league system, Chinese ownership is more common. Aston Villa, Birmingham City and Wolverhampton Wanderers are all Chinese-owned. Reading were taken over by the brother and sister, Dai Yongge and Dai Xiu Li, in May.

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With Southampton, Lander gets a seat in the richest and most-watched football league in the world, which is likely to bolster its income, the majority of which comes from energy sales and residential property development. Lai Guochuan bought West Bromwich Albion, ranked 10th in the Premier League’s 2016-2017 season, in July last year.

The league’s games were broadcast to 212 territories with a potential television audience of 4.7 billion people. During the 2014-2015 season, the average Premier League match was attended by 36,000 fans.

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Gao, 64, and his daughter Jingna, also known as Nelly, were jointly ranked at 438 last year in Hurun’s list of China’s wealthiest people, with their wealth estimated at 8 billion yuan (US$1.2 billion).

“I am honoured and humbled to become a partner of Southampton Football Club alongside Katharina Liebherr, who, together with her father, has been such a great steward of the club, its growth and success,” Gao said in a letter . “Together, we have the passion and motivation to build on Southampton’s excellent progress in recent years as we look forward to an exciting next chapter for the club.”

Lander’s shares have fallen nearly 29 per cent to 7.02 yuan in Shenzhen, since trading resumed in April after a five-month suspension.

With reporting by Paul Ryding in Hong Kong.