Alibaba's Soccer Buy: Business Ma's Way

| About: Alibaba Group (BABA)

E-commerce leader Alibaba (ABABA) has long insisted on a shareholding structure that would put all decision making powers in its top managers, and now we're getting a taste of what that could mean with word that the company will buy a stake in one of China's best known soccer teams. On the surface at least, this deal doesn't look very attractive. Most or all of China's soccer clubs are losing money, and the league has a record for poor marketing and also a series of corruption scandals that have hurt its reputation. Any ordinary Alibaba shareholder would probably instantly veto such a purchase if he had that kind of voting power.

But under Alibaba's proposed New York IPO, this kind of major decision will remain in the hands of top management, which basically means that Ma will make all the big decisions. In fact, this particular move doesn't look all that bad for anyone who understands how China's business world works, and I'll detail that element of the story shortly. What's more, the price for a stake of Guangzhou Evergrande is relatively small money for Alibaba, which has spent billions of dollars on a series of major acquisitions over the last year.

Under the newly announced deal, Alibaba will buy 50 percent of Evergrande, arguably China's most famous and successful soccer team, for up to 1.2 billion yuan ($190 million). (English article; Chinese article) The club is currently 100 percent owned by Evergrande Real Estate (HKEx: 3333), a Hong Kong-listed property company that has spent heavily to build up the team.

Media reports are citing a number of reasons for the deal, led by Alibaba's recent series of acquisitions aimed at expanding its entertainment business. One other report points out that Evergrande hopes to make an IPO for the team, hinting that perhaps this is just a temporary investment for Alibaba before it sells its stake at the time of a public listing.

At a news conference to announce the deal, Ma acknowledged that some people may not like the purchase, and added that will only make him happier. (Chinese article) That's typical for Ma, and is probably the kind of attitude that investors can expect from the company after it makes its blockbuster New York IPO in the next few months. In fact, many of the acquisitions on Ma's recent buying spree seem a bit diverse and lacking in common themes, leading me to previously say that many of these purchases may end up creating integration headaches for the company.

Evergrande certainly fits into that category, at least on the surface. Alibaba doesn't have any similar assets in its portfolio, and it would certainly be much easier to obtain broadcasting, sponsorship and other rights related to the team through simpler tie-ups. None of the reports I saw mentions the team's financial situation, but I strongly suspect it is losing money like nearly all of China's professional soccer teams.

That said, other major corporations have also bought soccer teams in recent years, including the recent purchase of Shanghai's Shenhua by local property developer Greenland. In that deal, Greenland openly complained that the purchase would cost it a lot of money and essentially said it was making the move to satisfy its local government contacts. I suspect Ma has similar motivations, since pleasing local officials is critical to doing business anywhere in China.

So from that angle, Alibaba's Evergrande purchase looks like it could be a relatively reasonable investment, especially if the company wants to boost its operations in the team's hometown of Guangzhou. From the broader perspective, this deal also does show that Ma intends to keep making all the big decisions for his company going forward, which could lead to problems as he ventures further and further away from his proven track record in e-commerce.

Bottom line: Alibaba's new soccer club purchase shows that founder Jack Ma intends to remain in charge of all major decisions, which could hurt the company as it expands beyond e-commerce.

Disclosure: None.

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Tagged: , Specialty Retail, Other, China, Expert Insight
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