(Adds quote, details)
* Retailer extends drive to create global sports business
* Current owner to cut stake to 31 percent
* Suning to take a large part of club’s debt-Inter CEO
By Adam Jourdan
NANJING, China, June 6 (Reuters) - Chinese electronics retailer Suning Commerce Group Co Ltd is buying nearly 70 percent of Italian soccer club Inter Milan for 270 million euros ($307 million) in the highest profile takeover of a European team by a Chinese firm.
Suning, part owned by e-commerce firm Alibaba, confirmed the deal on Monday at a joint news conference in the eastern Chinese city of Nanjing with Inter Milan executives, including current majority owner and president Erick Thohir.
With Chinese President Xi Jinping an avid soccer fan, Suning’s deal to take control of Inter Milan is the latest step in its plan to create a global sports empire stretching from soccer clubs to online broadcasting.
Suning, a household name in China, already owns domestic club Jiangsu Suning, currently third in the Chinese Super League, but this is its first major overseas purchase.
Inter, famous for their blue and black shirts, were European champions for the third time in 2010 but had a lacklustre season in 2015/16, finishing fourth in the Italian league and failing to qualify for the next Champions League.
“The acquisition of Inter Milan is part of Suning’s strategy in the development of the sports industry,” said Zhang Jindong, chairman of Suning Holdings Group, which plans to subscribe for new Inter Milan shares and buy existing shares.
“This will... help Suning to grow internationally.”
A person familiar with the matter told Reuters earlier that Suning would take a 68.55 percent stake in the Italian club.
The club said Indonesian businessman Thohir would stay on as president and become the sole minority shareholder in Inter Milan. Former president Massimo Moratti will sell off his entire stake of just under 30 percent in the club.
Suning said in a separate statement that Thohir would reduce his stake to about 30 percent.
Inter Milan Chief Executive Michael Bolingbroke told Reuters that Suning would also take on a large portion of the loss-making club’s debt. Italian media have reported that Inter’s debt with creditor banks stood at 230 million euros at end-June 2015.
“The popularity of the game, particularly in Asia and China, is going through a period of massive growth,” Thohir said, adding that Inter has 150 million fans in Asia, of whom over 100 million are in China.
Thohir said Inter’s revenues next year would top 200 million euros but there was a fear it would slip down the pecking order in Europe, especially with the latest Premier League TV deal giving English clubs huge extra financial muscle.
“The reality of life is that the era today is a ‘superclub’ era. Inter cannot become a small club or a medium club, we have to go back to being at the top.”
MILAN‘S CHINESE DERBY?
Monday’s deal tallies with President Xi’s goals for Chinese sport, which include ambitious plans to create a domestic sports industry worth $850 billion by 2025. Xi wants China to one day host, and win, the World Cup.
Chinese investors already have minority stakes in the parent of England’s Manchester City and Spain’s Atletico Madrid, while smaller Spanish club Espanyol and England’s Aston Villa are Chinese-owned. Inter’s city rival AC Milan is also in talks to sell a majority stake to a group of Chinese investors.
Suning is also amongst the frontrunners to buy UK-based Stellar Group, one of the world’s leading soccer agencies.
The company has said it wants to create a global sporting “ecosystem”, including club ownership, sports media rights, player agencies, training bases, broadcast platforms, content production and sports-related e-commerce.
Suning, which has annual revenues topping $20 billion, already has some blocks in place. Its local club has splashed millions of dollars on players such as Brazil’s Alex Teixeira and former Chelsea midfielder Ramires. ($1 = 0.8805 euros) (Additional reporting by Brenda Goh; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman and Keith Weir)