By Amy-Jo Crowley, Emma-Victoria Farr and Milana Vinn
LONDON/FRANKFURT/NEW YORK (Reuters) -Dalian Wanda Group, owned by China’s once-richest man Wang Jianlin, is seeking to sell its sports marketing unit Infront as financial pressure mounts on the property developer to shore up its finances, four people familiar with the matter told Reuters.
China’s largest commercial property group has tapped Deutsche Bank for advice on the sale of Infront Sports & Media, the sources said, adding the process is in the early stages and could take months to complete.
Private equity firms are looking at Infront, three of the sources said. The successful buyer is likely to be an investor with deep pockets because of the minimum guarantees the company is required to pay for sports rights, one of the sources added.
Headquartered in Switzerland, Infront’s businesses include managing Italy’s Serie A and the UK Premier League’s international media rights, as well as event operations, media rights distribution and sponsorship sales.
In June, Infront was awarded broadcast rights in 22 countries in Central and South East Asia for the Olympic Games from 2026 through 2032.
Wanda and Deutsche Bank declined to comment. A spokesperson for Infront said: “We confirm that, together with our shareholder Wanda Sports Group, Infront has launched a strategic review process with the aim to find a fully committed strategic investor,” adding that the company generates total annual revenues of around 1 billion euros ($1.09 billion).
The sources, who requested anonymity as the matter is confidential, cautioned a deal is not certain and is subject to market conditions.
China’s property developers have been battered over the last few years as falling sales and a wave of debt defaults have savaged a sector that previously contributed around a quarter of the country’s gross domestic product.
In July, the three main credit ratings agencies downgraded Dalian Wanda’s commercial management unit, warning of “non-payment risk” ahead of the repayment of a $400 million bond that had been due at the time. It raised $320 million through the partial sale of its entertainment unit Beijing Wanda Cultural Industry to pay it off.
It also stalled on a $22 million-dollar bond coupon payment in June, though it ultimately paid within the grace period. Additionally, it is facing litigation and asset freeze orders from courts in China due to payment disputes.
Wanda bought a majority stake in Infront for 1.05 billion euros ($1.1 billion) in 2015, in what was then an effort to support China in bidding for major sports events. It does not disclose financials for Infront.
Companies in the sports marketing sector have been strapped for cash after a downturn during the COVID pandemic.
Spain’s Mediapro, which manages international media rights for LaLiga, restructured 900 million euros in debt a year ago selling shares to investors including the group’s majority shareholder Southwind.
($1 = 0.9196 euro)
(Reporting by Amy-Jo Crowley, Emma-Victoria Farr and Milana Vinn; additional reporting by Andres Gonzalez, Kane Wu and Clare Jim; editing by Elisa Martinuzzi, Sharon Singleton and Diane Craft)