What if…Wanda bought Aston Villa?

China’s interest in becoming a football power is growing, as is the wealth of its tycoons. Struggling UK football club Aston Villa might be a sound investment.

It’s a tough time to be an Aston Villa fan. The football team from England's second city Birmingham has notched up just three wins all season and sits becalmed at the bottom of the country's world famous Premier League.

Relegation into the Championship -- the fancy name for the division beneath the Premier League -- was confirmed on April 16 for the one-time European champions.

A combination of poor management, squandering millions on overpaid, underperforming players, and selling the few stars they had, have all contributed to the club’s hapless state. American owner Randy Lerner, a man much reviled by Villa fans, stepped down as chairman in January and appointed Steve Hollis in his stead. But the news has remained awful.

In March the club sacked Remi Garde, its second manager of the season (they have yet to appoint a third).

He followed chief executive officer Tom Fox and sporting director Hendrik Almstadt out of the door. At the time Hollis admitted “The business model is broken but the board is determined we get it right.”  

With a new TV rights deal next season that is 71% higher than the previous one and will mean Premier League clubs sharing a record £5.136 billion ($7.3 billion), Aston Villa's imminent relegation could also not have come at a worse time from a financial point of view.

Yet for all its current woes, Aston Villa is a team with genuine heritage and lots of supporters -- not just as the biggest football team in the UK’s second-biggest city but with a global fan base that is reportedly the seventh-biggest among English soccer clubs. It also has some famous followers like US actor Tom Hanks, Prince William, and, most spuriously, British Prime Minister David Cameron

Aston Villa -- aka The Villa -- looks, in sum, like a great turnaround story in the making. It just needs a backer with the vision and the money to return it to the pinnacle.

Could Wang Jianlin be that man?

The group chairman of conglomerate Dalian Wanda Group is fabulously wealthy, thanks to the success of his real estate empire. And the company is seeking multiple investment avenues to diversify its revenue streams, while also adding lustre to China Inc. It is also keen to expand in the field of entertainment, having bought US movie studio Legendary Entertainment in January for $3.5 billion.

Buying an English football team, particularly a badly performing one, might not seem the smartest choice. And there is a lot of evidence that from a financial perspective it’s not a sound investment. But it’s wildly popular and offers terrific marketing.

China Inc appears keen on gaining both.

Football furore

China is far from being a footballing giant and currently sits 81st in the Fifa/Coca-Cola World Ranking, behind such soccer powerhouses as Belarus, Haiti, and Cyprus.

But President Xi Jinping is a renowned footie fan. During a visit to the UK in October he included a visit to the stadium of Manchester City, where he and Cameron took a selfie with star player Sergio Agüero.

Xi now seems determined to make China better at the beautiful game. On Monday the country’s National Development and Reform Commission released a plan for China to become a top-ranked football nation by 2050.

Tycoon-backed local teams have bought into the president’s ambition, either because they believe it or in order to curry favour. Chinese electronic retailer Suning bought local team Jiangsu Guoxin-Sainty in December. The renamed Jiangsu Suning then paid £20 million ($28.5 million) to sign Brazilian midfielder Ramires in January  and £38 million to sign fellow countryman Alex Teixeira on February 5. It marked the third time in 10 days that Chinese Super League’s transfer bill had been broken.

Wang has been part of China’s growing footie mania too. In January 2015 Wanda spent $49.04 million to gain a 20% stake in Spanish soccer club Atlético Madrid, currently the second-ranked team in the country’s top division, La Liga.

Marketing to the masses

Aston Villa might make for another popular, and less expensive, investment for Wang.

The ability of uber-wealthy individuals to turn football teams around is well documented. Chelsea was a mid-ranking London-based team until Russian billionaire oligarch Roman Abramovich took it over for $233 million in 2003. He has since spent many millions more on the team, which has won the Premier League four times and the European Champions League once in the ensuing period.

More recently, in 2008, Manchester City FC was taken over by the Abu Dhabi United Group, backed by Sheikh Mansour Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, for £210 million. Its new owners have catapulted a once humdrum footie team into a soccer powerhouse that has just attracted Pep Guardiola of Bayern Munich, seen by many as the world’s best football manager, to take charge from next season.

Interestingly, on November 30 Mansour sold a 13% stake in City Football Group, the company that controls Manchester City and New York City FC, to a Chinese consortium backed by China Media Capital (CMC) and Citic Capital. The £265 million deal took place just a few weeks after Xi visited Manchester City’s ground.  An affiliate of Dalian Wanda was reportedly one of the rival bidders who lost out. 

While Manchester City has momentum in building its brand into China, there is no reason that the deep-pocketed Wang (he is estimated to be worth $33.2 billion by Forbes) could not do the same for Aston Villa. And probably for a lot less.

Villa’s current owner, the US-based Lerner, bought the club for £62.7 million in 2006. He had hoped to turn the mid-table side into a title contender. But a series of poor player acquisitions on inflated contracts, along with subpar managers, have led to Aston Villa’s footballing demise and mounting financial losses.  

The club’s profligacy in offering players big salary increases increased Villa’s wages bill by £14 million to £74 million between the 2013/2014 and 2014/2015 financial years. In addition, former CEO Fox was paid over £1.25 million in 2014/2015, almost four times the amount of his predecessor Paul Falkner.

It is estimated that Aston Villa has racked up $357 million in losses since Lerner took over. Most recently, the club's parent company Reform Acquisitions reported a £27.3 million loss after tax for the 2014/2015 financial year. Meanwhile, the club has net liabilities of £20.4 million, which is admittedly better than the £57.48 million it reported the previous year.

Add to this the fact Aston Villa will earn a great deal less when it drops into the Championship. Broadcasting income came to £71.45 million in 2014/2015 but once the club is relegated broadcasting revenues could drop by more than 90% -- despite an initial £25 million as part of a four-year £65 million parachute payment.

Revitalising Villa

In short, Lerner appears to be a very motivated seller. In 2014 the Daily Telegraph newspaper reported that he was willing to offload the club for £100 million, half the amount he had earlier hoped to get.

Were Wanda to bid as little as £63 million for a majority stake, equivalent to Lerner’s original investment, it might be enough to get him to hand it over today. Further spending of perhaps £150 million would be enough to cover debts and bring in a shrewd manager and some younger, hungrier, and more talented players.

From a marketing perspective, buying Aston Villa and turning it around could be highly successful for Wang. Wanda is aggressively seeking to diversify its revenue sources away from China’s slowing and gradually bifurcating property market. Yet despite some notable acquisitions, it is not well known outside of China.

By taking on and turning around a big team in the world’s most watched footballing country, Wanda could almost immediately catapult its status into international recognition -- and Wang might get some useful support from his president into the bargain. 

What if… is a column that analyses unusual M&A ideas in Asia. These deals might not take place, but perhaps they should. 

This article has been updated to reflect the fact Aston Villa have now been relegated.

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