NANJING, China (Reuters) - Chinese electronics retailer Suning Commerce Group Co Ltd (002024.SZ) is buying nearly 70 percent of Italian soccer club Inter Milan for 270 million euros ($307 million), in the highest-profile takeover so far of a European team by a Chinese firm.
Suning, part owned by e-commerce firm Alibaba (BABA.N), 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 supporter of soccer, Suning's deal to take control of Inter Milan is the latest step in a broad 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.
"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 to 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 soccer club said Thohir would stay on as president and become the sole minority shareholder in Inter Milan, while 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 apart from the equity stake, Suning would also take on a large portion of the loss-making club's debt. He gave no specifics.
"The popularity of the game, particularly in Asia and China, is going through a period of massive growth," Thohir said.
"This agreement with Suning Holdings Group will allow us to get much closer to our huge fan base in China and the Asia Pacific region."
Inter - which has had a lacklustre season at home, finishing fourth in the Italian league - last won the European Champions League in 2010.
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 is a keen soccer fan and wants China to one day host, and win, the World Cup.
Chinese investors already have minority stakes in England's Manchester City, Spain's Atletico Madrid and New York City FC, 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 institutions, 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.
(This copy corrects spelling of Suning chairman's name in paragraph 5 to Jindong from Jingdong)
Additional Reporting by Brenda Goh; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell and Muralikumar Anantharaman