Premier League’s Southampton Said to Be New China Soccer Target

  • Lander Sports Development said in talks to acquire Saints
  • Discussions come amid China soccer buying spree sparked by Xi

China's Plans for Soccer Glory

Southampton, the Premier League football club based on the south coast of England, is in exclusive talks to be taken over by Lander Sports Development Co. of China, according to people familiar with the situation.

Katharina Liebherr, the club’s Swiss owner, has been engaged in the talks for several weeks, said the people, who declined to be identified because an agreement has yet to be completed. The price could be as much as 200 million pounds ($246.2 million), they said.

The talks come amid a surge of investment in soccer by Chinese companies, spurred by President Xi Jinping’s stated desire to turn the nation into a force in the sport. A consortium led by Hong Kong-based GreaterChina Professional Services Ltd. on Wednesday outlined its plans for another Premier League club, Hull City, if it succeeds with a takeover bid.

A Southampton takeover would be the most significant Chinese acquisition in English soccer to date, following deals in which West Bromwich Albion, Aston Villa, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Birmingham City were sold to Chinese investors.

A spokesman for Southampton said he was unaware of the talks. Lander declined to comment.

Sports Shift

Until last year Lander focused on the sale and management of property. Then it shifted to sports, a change that signaled convergence with Xi’s drive.

Several Lander ventures have followed, including the creation in May of a sports-insurance joint venture with Du-Bang Property & Casualty Insurance Co. and investments to promote winter sports in China, which will host the 2022 Winter Olympics. A Premier League soccer team is likely to be among Lander’s biggest assets, given its finances. The company announced a loss of 292.2 million yuan ($44.8 million) on sales of 2.6 billion yuan for the year ended Sept. 30. 

Southampton is growing into a Premier League force since bouncing back from the brink of bankruptcy and playing third-tier soccer as recently as 2009. It finished sixth in the Premier League -- its best-ever finish -- last season. On Thursday it meets Inter Milan, in which China’s Suning Holdings bought a controlling stake this year, in the UEFA Europa League.

The Saints, as Southampton is known, had a profit of 12 million pounds on sales of 113.7 million pounds for the year ended June 30, 2015, according to the most recently published accounts. Finances will be boosted further this year by the Premier League’s new broadcasting contract, the richest in soccer.

Lander’s interest in Southampton may have been stimulated by the team’s successful youth academy. In recent years it’s made millions of pounds in transfer fees after developing players including Real Madrid forward Gareth Bale, Liverpool midfielder Adam Lallana and Manchester United defender Luke Shaw.

In the talks involving Hull City, club owner Assem Allam has agreed to an acquisition price of $160 million, GreaterChina executive director David Yip said in an interview. The company is looking for investors to help finance the transaction and hopes to close the deal in the first half of 2017, he said.

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