Hot air and hyperbole: China’s sports deals hit the hogwash jackpot

As Chinese money pours into Western sports, the huge investment push breeds hogwash

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 31 May, 2016, 9:59am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 31 May, 2016, 9:59am

Chinese money is pouring into Western sports. The list of recent or potential deals is dizzying, spanning everything from European soccer clubs to sports rights, agents, and the Ultimate Fighting Championship. The push already merits one trophy: for sheer hogwash.

Bold mergers and acquisitions, almost by definition, are often accompanied by empty talk

The deals seem to have various drivers. Some reflect the forces powering China’s wider merger boom: cheap capital, confidence, and the desire to diversify abroad. Over that is layered the worldwide infatuation with live sports, as must-see content for which viewers will pay up.

Then there’s the idea that China is nearing an athletic boom. President Xi Jinping would like the country to host, and one day win, soccer’s World Cup. He also wants the sports business to be worth Ұ5 trillion a year by 2025.

Put these factors together and you have a recipe for hyperbole. Bold mergers and acquisitions, almost by definition, are often accompanied by empty talk. Athletes and fans are hardly any better. Political visions complete the near-unbeatable trifecta of hot air.

Thus, buying a minority stake in Manchester City becomes a “prime opportunity for furthering the contribution of China to the global football family”, the kind of empty phrase reminiscent of former Fifa boss Sepp Blatter. Meanwhile, Dalian Wanda’s purchase of the IronMan triathlon franchise was about securing “core resources and assets in the global sports industry”.

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For Xue Feng, boss of Everbright Securities, merely investing in sports rights firm MP & Silva was an “unforgettable experience”. To boot, he says sport has been “one of the ‘hottest’ investments recently” - which rarely makes for high returns. He’s also excited about helping MPS globalise, although that is not the strong suit of most Chinese state-backed firms.

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By comparison, the hitherto obscure businessman who bought England’s ailing Aston Villa soccer club seems refreshingly straight. “If President Xi likes this sport, I don’t think it is a bad thing that people make efforts to boost the game,” Xia Jiantong told the Wall Street Journal. “To be frank, if investments are not for that reason, it seems strange to me.” As Chinese buyers pile into the global sports business, such honesty is welcome – but likely to remain scarce.