MEDIA: Alibaba, LeTV Make New Plays In Sports

Bottom line: The latest sporting deals by LeTV, Wanda and Alibaba reflect a growing scramble to secure broadcast rights and develop sports channels in China, with more such deals likely in the year ahead.

Alibaba wins NCAA rights for China

A nascent but growing move by China’s top private companies into global sports is in 2 separate headlines, with word of significant new deals involving e-commerce giant Alibaba (NYSE: BABA) and video superstar LeTV (Shenzhen: 300104). The stories also involve the entertainment ambitions of real estate magnate Wang Jianlin, one of China’s richest men, whose Wanda Group has been at the center of 2 major global sports deals over the past year.

The first of the newest deals will see Alibaba bring US college basketball to China through a deal with the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the main governing body for US college sports. The other deal has seen LeTV, China’s most valuable provider of Internet video services, raise 800 million yuan ($130 million) for its young sports division. One of the main backers in that new funding round was Wang Jianlin’s son, Wang Shicong.

These 2 stories reflect a sudden scramble by Chinese new media companies, as well as other entertainment aspirants like Wanda, to secure China broadcasting rights for global sporting events. Such events are highly popular, as reflected by the huge audiences that often watch European soccer and NBA basketball games. What’s more, such programming is less controversial than foreign TV shows and movies, which must undergo a strict review by Chinese censors before they can be broadcast in China.

Most of the companies I’ve mentioned above have been in various sporting deals over the last year. Alibaba’s chief executive Jack Ma got the ball rolling when he made a major investment in one of China’s top soccer teams last year. (previous post) Wanda’s Wang has also been in a pair of major deals, buying a stake in Spanish soccer club Atletico de Madrid and also in Swiss sports management firm Infront Sport Media. (previous post) Last but not least is social networking giant Tencent (HKEx: 700), which earlier this year landed exclusive rights to broadcast live NBA basketball games in China over the Internet. (previous post)

Against that backdrop, Alibaba’s new deal with the NCAA doesn’t come as a big surprise, and even looks a bit like a consolation prize to Tencent’s earlier NBA win. Under the deal, Alibaba will get exclusive rights to show live NCAA games in China, starting with a November match that will be played in China between University of Washington Huskies and the University of Texas Longhorns. (English article)

The match will mark the first time a regular-season NCAA game has been played in China, and more could follow. The move would follow similar ones by the NBA, which has a huge following in China. I personally prefer NCAA basketball to the higher-profile but more commercial NBA, though I do think Alibaba will face a big uphill march to garner the same level of enthusiasm for NCAA games among Chinese that the NBA now enjoys.

Next let’s look at the LeTV news, which prominently features the role of Wang Jianlin’s son Wang Shicong as a main backer in the new fund-raising for LeTV sports. (Chinese article) The deal will value LeTV sports at 2.8 billion yuan, meaning the new investors are getting nearly 30 percent of the division for their money. In an interesting footnote, earlier headlines on the story said Alibaba’s Jack Ma was also participating in the investment, though his name isn’t present in the actual story on the funding.

LeTV’s sports unit was simply a channel on the company’s bigger video service platform for most of its life, but was split off as a separate division late last year. We’ll have to wait and see how this newly evolving business takes shape, but it should be in a good position to win broadcasting rights for lots of European sporting events through Wang Jianlin’s previous investments. In the meantime, we can probably expect to see more similar deal in popular sports like basketball, soccer and tennis as part of this growing wave of bids for rights to broadcast such events in China.

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