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Alibaba buys half of Chinese soccer club for $192 million

By Paul Carsten

BEIJING (Reuters) - In a speedy deal hatched over a few drinks, China's biggest e-commerce company Alibaba is buying half of the country's most successful soccer club Guangzhou Evergrande for $192 million.

For Jack Ma, Alibaba Group Holding's [IPO-ALIB.N] billionaire founder and confessed soccer agnostic, it may seem a fanciful move, the latest in a string of recent acquisitions beyond Alibaba's traditional e-commerce businesses.

Guangzhou Evergrande is owned by Hong Kong property firm Evergrande Real Estate Group Ltd, and the team is coached by World Cup winning manager Italian Marcello Lippi. The club won the 2013 AFC Champions League, the first Chinese side to win the region's premier club competition in its current format, and finished fourth in the World Club Cup.

Alibaba and its affiliates have spent more than $6 billion this year on assets in finance, entertainment and healthcare, seeking to dig deeper into customer wallets ahead of a U.S. stock listing that could be the biggest tech company IPO to date, and value Alibaba at $152 billion.

Beyond its core online commerce businesses, Hangzhou-based Alibaba now offers Internet TV, owns 16.5 percent of online video site Youku Tudou Inc and has set up a film company in Hong Kong after taking control of ChinaVision Media Group.

"We're not investing in football, we're investing in entertainment," Ma said. "Alibaba's future strategies are health and entertainment."

But analysts weren't convinced.

"Fifty percent seems like a big stake to get a deal on content," said Bryan Wang, Beijing-based vice president at Forrester Research.

At a news conference on Thursday, Ma and Evergrande Real Estate's billionaire chairman Xu Jiayin said the deal was hatched over dinner and drinks, and wrapped up in just a few days.

The idea of Ma investing in the soccer club - which was mired in a match-fixing scandal several years ago - was only raised on Monday, said Xu. "I got Jack drunk in Hong Kong and afterwards asked him if he'd invest, and he said 'okay'," Xu said. "The discussions were finished within 15 minutes yesterday morning."

BRANDING DEAL

Alibaba's investment could be more about building a national brand and establishing good relationships than doing good business, analysts said.

"Most, if not all, professional sports teams lose money, and anybody who buys into them isn't doing it as a money making proposition," said Doug Young, a professor at the Fudan University Journalism School. "Evergrande is looking for someone to share the misery with them in terms of having to subsidize the team, and the reason Alibaba is doing it is for the local relationships and publicity."

The club will issue new shares and invite 20 strategic investors to each take a 2 percent stake in the enlarged shareholding, eventually reducing Alibaba's and Evergrande Real Estate's shareholdings to 30 percent each.

The club will then hold 2.4 billion yuan ($384 million) in cash, said Xu. "When the conditions are right for the club to go public, it will," he added.

"We want to use the Internet and technology to help traditional enterprises transform," said Ma. "Alibaba doesn't do real estate, but will support real estate companies like Evergrande."

Evergrande Real Estate reported 2013 advertising revenues of 363 million yuan ($58 million) from its soccer and volleyball clubs, up 23 percent from the previous year.

Evergrande Real Estate shares rose as much as 5 percent to a 7-week high, before closing up 2.78 percent in a slightly easier Hong Kong market on Thursday.

($1 = 6.2504 Chinese Yuan Renminbi)

(Reporting by Paul Carsten and Beijing Newsroom; Editing by Michael Perry and Ian Geoghegan)

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