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ASO has for years been the big fish amongst race organisers, running the top events and also having sizeable influence in the direction of the sport. It owns the Tour de France, the Vuelta a España plus many other major races, and resisted the UCI over the introduction of the ProTour, and more recently, the planned WorldTour reforms.
However if Milano Finanza is proven correct, another major player could be vying to enter the arena, with Chinese businessman Wang Jianlin and his Wanda Sports group reportedly interested in buying the three Grand Tours.
Jianlin is China’s wealthiest person with an estimated fortune of almost $30 billion. In addition to many other business interests, he owns a 20% stake in Spain’s Atlético Madrid football team. Earlier this year he purchased InFront Sports & Media, which holds some of the marketing rights to FIFA’s World Cup, and recently bought WTC (World Triathlon Corporation) who owns Ironman for $650 million.
After that acquisition the new Wanda Sports group was launched in November, and claims it is the “largest sports operating company in the world.”
According to Milano Finanza, this company is considering purchasing the Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a España.
The financial publication reports that it will begin talks with ASO over the Tour and Vuelta. The French company has long been protective of its sporting interests, rejecting in the past an approach by Giro organisers RCS Sport.
Jianlin has a formidable fortunate and so whether ASO would be willing to sell at the right price remains to be seen. However RCS Sport may be more vulnerable; last month Milano Finanza said that debts of €440 million for the RCS Media Group meant that it could be forced to sell RCS Sport.
At the time it was suggested that ASO could make a move to purchase the company. RCS Sport played down the suggestions, but it remains to be seen if the Wanda Sports group will try to swoop and to begin a push into the world of cycling.
Big growth a stated aim
In November Jianlin made clear that the company had major ambitions.
“Wanda has a very high expectation for the development and prospects of the sports industry,” he stated then.
“The significance of establishing Wanda Sports is not only to integrate Wanda’s interests in sports, but also to truly expand and strengthen Wanda’s businesses in the industry, while at the same time grasping the rapidly growing opportunities in the Chinese sports market.
“We want to truly impact the development of sport around the world.”
The company’s president and CEO is Philippe Blatter, the nephew of embattled former FIFA head Sepp Blatter.
He too said that the group had big aims. “Under the new structure we expect the growth and acceleration of the company’s impressive portfolio of both spectator and participation sports based on the shared networks and resources of the integrated companies. All valued partners and clients as well as millions of sports enthusiasts worldwide will benefit.”
Should Jianlin succeed in the reported goal of owning the three Grand Tours, he could have a major influence on the future of the sport. A long-standing member of the Chinese Communist party, he was described this year by The Economist as ‘clearly a man of Napoleonic ambition.’
It points out that he has been shaped by his many years in the People’s Liberation Army, a 17 year span that saw him become a regimental commander.
“He is now 60 but maintains a trim figure and erect bearing,” it states. “He also insists on iron discipline at work. Employees are fined for violating his conservative dress code.”
In this light, the UCI’s at-times complicated relationship with ASO could be viewed with some nostalgia in the years ahead.