Wanda chairman Wang Jianlin

China’s Wanda Group has agreed to buy Infront — the Swiss sports marketing group headed by Sepp Blatter’s nephew and which holds some broadcasting rights to the World Cup — for 1.05 billion euros ($1.2 billion), the two firms said Tuesday.

The Chinese property and entertainment conglomerate is looking to increase its influence in the global sports business, as Beijing bids for the 2022 Winter Olympics while rumours swirl that it could seek to host the 2026 football World Cup.

Wanda chairman Wang Jianlin said in a joint statement that Infront “is best positioned to actively support China in its bidding efforts for major sports events”.

At a news conference following the announcement, he also cited Chinese President Xi Jinping’s three-step plan for developing football in China: “To qualify for a World Cup, to host a World Cup and to win a World Cup.”

Wanda is looking to diversify from the property business as Chinese economic growth slows and real estate prices slump in many cities across the country.

The deal puts Wang — who is China’s second-richest man according to Bloomberg Billionaires and recently bought 20 percent of Spanish football champions Atletico Madrid — and his company firmly in the front row of the global sports business. 

Infront Sports and Media, based in Zug, Switzerland, and directed by Philippe Blatter, handles the media and marketing rights for many international sports events.

It is expected to rake in several hundred million dollars on the next two football World Cups — in Russia in 2018 and in Qatar in 2022 — alone. 

The company, which counts some 600 employees across 12 countries, is also heavily present in all aspects of sports marketing, with sponsoring activities including advertising around sports halls and stadiums.

Infront also handles media finances for many footballclubs, including AC Milan and Inter Milan, and counts the Berlin Marathon, China’s professional basketball league and the European Handball Federation among its clients.

Marcus Luer, founder and CEO of marketing agency Total Sports Asia, told AFP he would be “very surprised” if FIFA did not give China the 2026 World Cup.

“Why wouldn’t you go there?” he said. “To me it’s a no-brainer to go to China.”

But the country’s bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics — it is facing off against Almaty in Kazakhstan, with the winner to be announced in May — could be as much of a driver behind the deal as football, he said.

“People talk about the (2026) World Cup, but the Winter Olympics is actually the next big thing on the radar. 

“Infront has a strong link with the winter sports world… I would be surprised if it doesn’t have any impact, I would be quite sure there’s some links and relationships.”

At the news conference Blatter said he had “great hope” China’s Olympic bid would succeed, saying: “I’m sure this will create a lot of opportunities for the federations, the Chinese fans, for the Chinese brands, the media and ultimately for Wanda and Infront.”

– Controversy –

His uncle, FIFA president Sepp Blatter, has been criticised in the past after its decision to award Infront the sale of World Cup TV rights in a number of Asian countries for the 2018 and 2022 tournaments.

Sepp Blatter “obviously doesn’t care” about the criticism, Luer said. “He’s showed that many times before.”

The news of the Infront transaction came hours after a FIFA electoral committee approved Blatter and three rivals for a May election for his post at the top of football‘s global governing body.

Blatter held the presidency since 1998 and originally pledged not to seek a fifth term.

His reign has notably been tarnished by accusations of corruption stemming from the bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, and the fallout over a report into the Qatar vote process.

He will be 79 by the time of the vote but is a strong favourite to defeat Dutch federation president Michael van Praag; Jordanian Prince Ali bin Al Hussein, a FIFA vice-president; and Portuguese football great Luis Figo.

Victory would put Blatter in a strong position to influence the award of the 2026 tournament.

A FIFA statement said all four candidates had passed “integrity checks” and so were allowed into the election.

Wanda is buying Infront from private equity firm Bridgepoint, which acquired it in 2011.

Wang is a known to be a diehard football fan. His Wanda Group greatly increased its profile in China after Wang bought a Dalian football club in 1994, renamed it after the firm, and transformed it into the strongest team in China. – Agence France-Presse

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