August 5, 2016 / 10:29 AM / 3 years ago

Chinese investors agree to buy AC Milan, ending Berlusconi era

MILAN (Reuters) - Former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi agreed on Friday to sell soccer team AC Milan to a consortium of Chinese investors, ending his three decades of ownership of the seven-times European champions.

AC Milan's Alex celebrates after scoring . REUTERS/Alessandro Garofalo

Berlusconi’s Fininvest family holding said it had signed a preliminary agreement valuing the club at 740 million euros ($818 million) including 220 million euros of debt.

The Chinese investors, whose identity had not been disclosed during three months of negotiations, included development and investment fund Haixa Capital and Yonghong Li, chairman of management company Sino-Europe Sports Investment Management Changxing, the statement said.

It added that there were other companies involved in the deal, some of which are controlled by the Chinese state, but gave no further details on their exact identity.

Last month, a source said that private investment firm GSR Capital, with its co-founder and Chinese dealmaker Sonny Wu, were among investors but the Fininvest statement did not mention either.

Chinese investors with cash to spend have been pouring money into soccer, as President Xi Jinping, a soccer fan himself, looks to make the country a global force in the sport.

On Friday, a group called Yunyi Guokai (Shanghai) Sports Development Ltd, controlled by businessman Guochuan Lai, agreed to buy English Premier League club West Bromwich Albion.

China’s food and beverage packaging products company ORG Packaging Co Ltd 002701.SZ also said it planned to acquire a 60 percent stake in French second division club AJ Auxerre for 7 million euros.

Once the AC Milan deal goes through, it will mean both of the city’s soccer clubs are controlled by Chinese investors.

In June electronics retailer Suning Commerce Group Co Ltd (002024.SZ) agreed to buy nearly 70 percent of city rivals Inter Milan for 270 million euros in what was the highest profile takeover of a European team by a Chinese firm.

CASH INJECTION

The sale of AC Milan, one of Berlusconi’s most cherished assets, is part of a wider effort by the 79-year-old former prime minister to reshape his business empire to prepare for his own succession, disposing of the most indebted businesses.

The deal is due to be closed by the end of the year.

Fininvest said the buyers had committed to investing 350 million euros over the next three years into the club, which has failed to win a major trophy since 2011.

AC Milan which reported a loss of 93.5 million euros last year and needs cash to put it on a par with the top European clubs, many now bankrolled by Gulf and Asian owners.

“The deal is convenient because it has a low entrance price, but is an operation with a high value. The money (the Chinese) are putting down is to give value to a big brand, counting on the masses in Asia,” says PwC partner Emanuele Grasso.

The club has weighed on the finances of the media tycoon.

“It was not sustainable... it was an indulgence that Berlusconi could not afford anymore,” a source close to the club told Reuters.

This is not the first time Berlusconi has tried to sell Milan. Last year, talks with Thai businessman Bee Taechaubol to sell a majority stake foundered when Berlusconi changed his mind at the last minute.

The Chinese investors in the Milan deal were advised by Rothschild. Fininvest was advised by Lazard, BNP Paribas as well as law firm Chiomenti.

Additional reporting by Giancarlo Navach, Francesca Landini and Chyen Yee Lee in Singapore,; editing by Keith Weir

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