Soccer’s Manchester Derby Makes Pitch for Chinese Investment

  • International Champions Cup said valued up to $500 million
  • Global series of exhibition games comes to Shanghai, Shenzhen

For the first time in 135 years, Manchester United and Manchester City will be meeting outside England. Way outside: On July 25, the two soccer teams will kick off at the National Stadium in Beijing.

The match is part of the International Champions Cup, a three-year-old series of global exhibition games that has become a high-profile way for clubs to woo fans in more places. Three ICC games will be played in China -- in Shanghai, Beijing and Shenzhen -- and this year, tournament owner Relevant Sports is selling more than the teams on the field.

Charlie Stillitano
Charlie Stillitano
Photographer: Trevor Collens/AFP via Getty Images

New York-based Relevent Sports is in discussions with Chinese investors over the sale of a substantial stake in the ICC, which is valued at $300 million to $500 million, according to a person with knowledge of the terms who asked not to be named because the negotiations are private. Several people familiar with the discussions acknowledged that a deal is in the late stages. The three-week event generates revenues of more than $100 million, according to one of the people.

The ICC has staged games in China before President Xi Jinping announced a national initiative this spring to make the country a global soccer powerhouse. Since then, Chinese investors have gone mad for the sport.

Chinese buyers have purchased European club teams and sports media companies. Chinese Super League teams are luring talent with record-breaking salaries. Italian forward Graziano Pelle, for example, will earn 40 million euros for joining state-backed Shandong Luneng from the English Premier League’s Southampton.

“You can’t plan for the president of China saying, ’We want to be the No. 1 soccer nation in the world in 2050,’” said Relevant Chairman Charlie Stillitano. “You can’t plan on those things. Part of that is just good fortune in this case.”

Relevant had limited the number of games it promoted in China because doing business can be a challenge for Western companies, Stillitano said. Having a local partner should make that easier and in turn attract more fans to some of the world’s best teams.

RSE Ventures, a firm founded by Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, backs Relevant and has used its Hong Kong subsidiary to support the ICC’s growth in China. “If it weren’t for the fact we have an operation out of Hong Kong I don’t think there’s anyway we could execute the ICC in China,” said RSE Chief Executive Officer Matt Higgins.

Xi’s goal is to make China a global soccer superpower, which includes hosting -- and winning -- the World Cup by 2050. The men’s national team is currently No. 81 in the world, and in a recent meeting with new FIFA President Gianni Infantino officials from the China’s soccer federation bemoaned the lack of soccer fields in the country. Every county should have two standard fields, and every new living residence compounds in cities with adequate resource should have at least one five-a-side court, according to Xi’s national plan.

Building a soccer superpower is harder than promoting exhibition games featuring top teams from the West. And with Chinese cash flooding the soccer market, clubs from across Europe are vying to get a piece of the action.

“We field inbound inquiries every week from another team that is interested in figuring out how to bring a team to China,” said Higgins.

ICC matches in Australia, the U.S. and Europe will feature Real Madrid, FC Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain, Bundesliga champion Bayern Munich and surprise Premier League winner Leicester City, among others.

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