Evergrande, Alibaba-owned soccer club to be first to list in Asia

The logo of Alibaba Group is seen inside the company's headquarters in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province early November 11, 2014. REUTERS/Aly Song

HONG KONG (Reuters) - China's Evergrande Real Estate Group Ltd and Alibaba Group Holding Ltd are planning a stock market listing for soccer club Evergrande Taobao, former Asian Champions League winners, in what would be a first for a team in the region.

The club, which last month hired Brazil's World Cup-winning coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, has applied to list on China's so-called New Third Board for small enterprises, Evergrande said in a filing to the Hong Kong Stock Exchange on Thursday.

Soccer is popular in China with President Xi Jinping, a soccer enthusiast, pushing for the country to host the World Cup tournament. Even so, the men's national team currently languish at 79th in the world rankings of soccer's governing body FIFA.

In March, the government announced a plan to raise the level of play and reform a sport often tainted with corruption. Listing a club would be one means of improving transparency as entities are obliged to disclose financial details to investors.

"The listing of Evergrande Taobao will further strengthen its corporate governance structure and enhance the liquidity of its equity interest, thus facilitating the introduction of strategic investors, promotion of corporate image and realisation of sustainable development," Evergrande said.

The club will list on an over-the-counter exchange, which has less stringent listing criteria than major stock exchanges. Evergrande, which owns 60 percent of the club, said it did not plan to sell any of its shares, nor issue any new shares.

Alibaba owns the remainder, having paid $192 million for a 50 percent stake last year following drinks between Executive Chairman Jack Ma and Evergrande's Chairman Xu Jiayin. The e-commerce firm declined to comment on the club's listing plans.

The pair hired Guotai Junan Securities as bookrunner for the listing. Separately, Evergrande said it also planned to list subsidiary Evergrande Culture on the New Third Board.

Formally known as Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao Football Club Co Ltd, the team won the AFC Champions League in 2013 and the Chinese Super League in 2014. It has a 50,000-seat stadium in Guangzhou, China's third-largest city.

The club is worth about 10 billion yuan ($1.61 billion), Chinese media reported. That would be less than the nearly $3 billion market capitalisation of Britain's Manchester United PLC, but much larger than Italy's Juventus FC SpA and Germany's Borussia Dortmund.

The listing is the latest soccer deal involving China. Six months ago, property developer Dalian Wanda Group - controlled by China's richest man, Wang Jianlin - bought 20 percent of Spain's Club Atletico de Madrid. Another developer, Greentown China Holdings Ltd, controls Hangzhou Greentown Football Club of the Chinese Super League.

(Additional reporting by Clare Jim in HONG KONG and Sue-Lin Wong in SHANGHAI; Editing by Stephen Coates and Christopher Cushing)

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