China Digest | All Gao for Southampton takeover; Hong Kong targets World Cup involvement; NBA reveals esports plans

Weekly round-up of sports business news from the Chinese sports industry.

All Gao for Southampton takeover

If the long-running saga of AC Milan’s Chinese takeover is any indication, there may yet be a successful conclusion to Southampton FC’s ownership transfer. If the deal does eventually go through, however, expect further twists in the tale.

Lander Sports had reportedly been pursuing an 80-per-cent stake in the English Premier League club for some time. Unable to close a deal, reports of rival bids surfaced in the media.

However, the latest developments have Lander Sports – which started out as a real estate company before an abrupt rebranding in 2015 – stating that while its own interest in the club has ended, the company’s owner, Gao Jisheng, is mounting an individual bid instead.

Given that Gao has only received verbal approval at this point, it will surprise nobody if the deal still hits a roadblock.

Gao has admitted in the past to bribing Chinese officials, with his testimony leading to the execution of at least one government employee.

That history has apparently not been enough for the Premier League to block the deal, raising a host of questions which may cause concern for Southampton fans: does Gao have the money? Are his funds already out of China? Why does he want to buy the club?

The whole episode – and especially the way the league has been apparently powerless to prevent an individual with such a chequered history from buying one of its club – has reportedly led to Premier League bosses approving tougher ownership rules.

Sky News also claims there have been “growing objections” to the number of clubs being bought by Chinese backers, with a lack of transparency surrounding the ultimate source of the financing cited as the most worrying aspect.

Lander has also been in the news due to its plans for a new ‘sports town’ in the city of Pengzhou, near Chengdu in the southern province of Sichuan.

Known as a builder of sports stadia, Lander’s sports and recreation hub will cost an estimated 4bn RMB ($590m/€530m) and will focus on leisure, entertainment and sports activities. It’s the latest in a series of planned sport-themed towns and communities that have been proposed in China in recent months.

Hong Kong targets World Cup involvement

As mentioned last week, there have been suggestions that China might host the 2022 World Cup if the political crisis in Qatar is not resolved.

In the last few days Fifa boss Gianni Infantino has said he’s confident that the World Cup will go ahead in Qatar as planned, even going so far as to say that football could help to resolve the problems.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong FA head Timothy Fok says he’s been telling China not to forget his territory in the event of any World Cup bid, although any Hong Kong involvement would depend on plans for a new stadium being approved.

Hong Kong has been officially part of China for 20 years but has a separate football team, meaning that Fok’s hosting proposal would technically be considered a joint bid.

Kunlun women’s ice hockey team won’t relocate to Canada

The new Chinese franchise in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL), reported in these pages several weeks ago, has now been officially unveiled.

The team will be known as Kunlun Red Star (KRS) and will be a female complement to the Beijing-based men’s team that debuted in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) last season.

With the league’s five other teams based in Toronto, Boston, Calgary, Montreal and Brampton (Ontario), it had initially been thought that the Chinese outfit would be based in North America.

However, the KRS women’s team will play their home games in Shenzhen, just north of Hong Kong, with each team travelling to China to play a three-game series.

Historically, the CWHL has not paid its players, but the new investment from China may help to change that situation.

First CSL team heading for A-share listing

Chinese Super League (CSL) team Changchun Yatai says it wants to list on China’s A-share stock market.

The club notified the Chinese FA of its intentions last week and aims to be the first A-share listed company with diversified holdings.

CSL clubs are all thought to be in various levels of debt – meaning that all new foreign players signed will incur a 100 per cent transfer tax under new rules that take effect next week – but Yatai’s move could help to generate some additional revenue, and potentially bypass the levy.

Image: NBA China is looking at new plans to further its reach in China (Zhong Zhi/Getty Images)

NBA reveals esports plans

NBA China head David Shoemaker has said the league is looking to launch an esports league in China. Speaking to CNBC on the sidelines of the annual Consumer Electronics Show Asia in Shanghai, Shoemaker said the NBA is weighing up either instituting a separate esports league in China, or including Chinese teams in a US league.

He also said the NBA wants to optimise the viewing experience for Chinese fans through partner Tencent, which is in the middle of a five-year media rights deal worth an estimated $700m.

Speaking of Tencent, the Chinese tech giant has signed a digital media partnership with the French Open, running through to the end of the 2021 tournament. Under the agreement, Tencent Sports will create a French Open platform delivering content and exclusive data to Chinese users. This will include live streaming, on-demand services, video highlights and interactive content, while a Chinese-language website will also be produced.

Further ahead, Tencent says it will live stream the French Open in full starting from 2019.

Suning seals DDMC deal

Suning Sports has formed a partnership with sports and entertainment company DDMC with an initial investment of 100m RMB.

DDMC, whose assets include the Desports agency, will invest 45m RMB in the venture, with Suning Sports – part of the Suning group that owns online broadcast platform PPTV – putting in 40m RMB and the remaining 15m RMB coming from the joint venture’s management team and other shareholders.

Meanwhile, Suning vice president Gu Wei says PPTV is willing to share rights with partners that are television set manufacturers.

PPTV has acquired online rights for many high-profile sports properties, several of which it picked up from rival LeSports. The latter lost another property last week, when Formula 1’s holding company stripped its broadcast rights after failure to meet payment deadlines.

Maradona angrily denies academy involvement

Diego Maradona has posted an angry message on Facebook denouncing a certain Ms Qing Huitang, whom he claims operates several “Maradona Academies” in China without his authorisation.

He added that he is looking forward to his next visit to China, when he can confront her face-to-face. This is not the first time that Maradona has fallen foul of IP issues in China.

He previously accused two internet firms – including one whose boss was responsible for Nicholas Anelka’s and Didier Drogba’s entries into, and exits out of, China – of using his likeness without permission back in 2011, eventually winning in court two years later.

Also this week…

Further reading…

The China Digest is written by Mark Dreyer, who runs the China Sports Insider website, which features sports business news and analysis related to China’s fast-growing sports industry. He has worked for Sky Sports, Fox Sports, AP Sports and many others, and has covered major sporting events on five continents, including three Olympic Games. He has been based in China since 2007.

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