Broadcast bingo Chinese Could Score World Cup Rights

The entertainment group Wanda is close to winning the keys to soccer's biggest tournament by snapping up Swiss media marketing firm Infront.
A valuable commodity.

Commenting on the value of broadcasting rights, Rupert Murdoch, one of the most powerful media moguls in the world, once said: “Sport absolutely overpowers film and everything else in the entertainment genre, and football, of all sports, is number one.”

Now it seems Chinese investors are keen to take him at his word. According to the Financial Times, the Chinese property and entertainment conglomerate, Wanda, wants to take over Infront Sports & Media, a Swiss-based company that handles the media and marketing rights for international sports. And the Chinese company might not be alone in its interest.

For three years, Infront has belonged to Bridgepoint, a private equity company, but they have been looking for a buyer since September. Neither Bridgepoint nor Infront are commenting on the ongoing discussions, but sources close to the companies say they are in the midst of the sales process.

Infront was founded in 2002 by the entrepreneur Nicole Junkermann and the former owner of Adidas, Robert Louis-Dreyfus, who passed away in 2009. Before the €550 million, or $685.4 million, takeover by Bridgepoint in 2011, the coffee heir Andreas Jacobs gained a majority of shares. Infront generated sales of around €600 million in 2013; it does not publish figures on earnings.

The company is perhaps best known for its president and chief executive, Philippe Blatter, the nephew of the controversial Joseph "Sepp" Blatter, president of FIFA, soccer's international governing body.

This connection left Infront well placed to market the TV rights to major FIFA tournaments. It used to have the rights to all of FIFA’s World Cups, but in 2006 this deal was watered down. In 2011, FIFA gave Infront a mandate to sell the TV rights in the Asian market for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.

In Germany, Infront markets the qualifying or knock-out rounds of the national soccer team, as well as international friendlies and the German Football Association’s DFB Cup. It also works with 13 of the 18 top flight Bundesliga clubs, such as SV Schalke 04 and Werder Bremen.

The value of the most important TV rights, such as the UEFA Champions League or the American football leagues, are likely to increase by 14 percent to €4.2 billion, or $5.2 billion, this year.

Such sports rights are becoming more and more valuable as the battle for ratings hots up. According to a study by the consulting firm Deloitte, the value of the most important TV rights, such as the UEFA Champions League, the Bundesliga or the American football leagues, are likely to increase by 14 percent to €4.2 billion ($5.2 billion) this year alone.

Prices are likely to continue to rise as top quality sports draw in bigger and bigger audiences for media providers. This is why Bridgepoint is hoping to secure a good price for Infront; talk is of a valuation of around €900 million.

It is a price that Wanda can well afford. The company started as a real estate firm, and after reaping big profits in the booming Chinese property market, it continually expanded into new fields of business. The company’s core business is still based on office towers, shopping centers and luxury hotels across the world.

Even so, the firm is also the world’s largest operator of movie theatres and is building amusement parks. After years of rising real estate sales, Wanda is swimming in money. A flotation of the commercial properties division in Hong Kong in December is expected to bring in up to €8 billion. Last year, company income was €24.6 billion and it is expected to rise to €80 billion in the coming five years.

At the moment, Wanda is snatching up more and more media companies. A company that manages rights would fit neatly into this strategy. The advertising market in China is growing very quickly right now, and the thirst for sports on TV is gigantic.

Rupert Murdoch wouldn't be too surprised if a Chinese player steps onto his playing field.


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Holger Alich is Handelsblatt's Switzerland correspondent, Finn Mayer-Kuckup is the East Asia correspondent, based in Beijing. To contact the authors: [email protected], [email protected]