By Adam Jourdan
SHANGHAI (Reuters) - A former property banker, Briton Alex Jarvis, said he fell into China's soccer boom with a chance encounter in the first class lounge of a cruise liner bound for New York in 2011.
Three months later, he was in Chongqing, one of China's biggest cities, on a deal. First it was a property; soon after that, a soccer transaction.
Another former financier, Harry Spencer, said he stumbled on China's soccer mania when he met people while playing bridge.
As Chinese businesses splurge on the beautiful game, Jarvis and Spencer are among a growing number of nimble middlemen cutting deals and making introductions. The frenzy shows little sign of cooling despite cautious words from the Chinese authorities, but there are also risks that little-known buyers won’t be able to complete deals or will walk away without paying commissions.
"Two years ago, I could count direct competitors who could deliver deals on two hands. Now, it is thousands," says Jarvis, who has brokered deals for investors like Suning Commerce Group and Citic Securities, as well as European clubs from Hull City in England to Nice in France.
He introduced Hull City's owners to Chinese businessman Chien Lee, the co-founder of hotel group 7 Days Inn, who also led a consortium in the takeover of Nice last year.
Chinese entities and individuals have plowed more than $3 billion into overseas soccer investments over the past year or so - a boon for cash-strapped clubs, but also for advisers and fixers like Jarvis, who have carved a niche connecting the Middle Kingdom's cash with Europe's clubs.
Southampton was set to become the latest English Premier League team to get Chinese investment as stadium builder Lander Sports Development said on Thursday it was taking a stake of an undisclosed size in the club.
Investment bankers, usually first in line to orchestrate and help finance cross-border deals, have largely remained on the sidelines, wary of damage to their reputations and fee income if deals blow up. Several bankers also said buyers are often untested and pay in cash, meaning there is little in the way of lucrative financing to be arranged.
U.S. sport has seen niche boutique advisers flourish, but in China advisers say they stay out of an opaque market. Several blamed fixers for whipping up a frenzy of unsustainable deals.
"Who is representing some of the buyers? Is anyone telling them they are overpaying?" said a top sports banker who asked not to be named. "These are small agents who have no interest in the long term."
For Jarvis and others, it is about being small and nimble, nipping in where others fear to tread. "You don't have to be J.P. Morgan or Rothschild to do a deal in China anymore," he said.
He says the commission is typically a few percent of the price tag. He usually seeks to be paid by the seller, rather than the Chinese buyer.
It is new frontier behavior.
"There's going to be a lot of money made and a lot of money lost, for sure. It's a bit of a Wild West," said Peter Kenyon, former chief executive of British clubs Chelsea and Manchester United, now director of consultancy Opto Advisers.
Kenyon also has close ties to Spanish club Atletico Madrid, part-owned by China's richest man Wang Jianlin, and said he was now involved in other Chinese soccer deals in Europe, though he declined to be specific.
The middlemen say the weaker pound has made English clubs more attractive for Chinese purchasers, so there should be more deals in 2017, after 2016 saw sales of West Bromwich Albion and Wolverhampton Wanderers to Chinese buyers. A deal for Hull City has not yet been completed.And cash is being spent in China too, where entrepreneurs have been encouraged by avid fan President Xi Jinping. China wants to swell the domestic sports market so that it is worth 5 trillion yuan ($753 billion) by 2025, about five times its current size. Fueling the deals are also the boasting rights that successful Chinese businessmen can obtain by buying a club and top players.
Over the past few weeks, Shanghai's two clubs have signed Carlos Tevez, from Argentinian side Boca Juniors, and former Chelsea midfielder Oscar, putting both among the best-paid players globally. UK media reports put Tevez' salary at 615,000 pounds ($770,000) a week.
There could be further deals in the next few days before the English Premier League's winter player transfer window closes on Jan 31.
(For factbox of deals in the past 15 months:)
China has recently moved to limit the number of foreign players appearing in domestic games and the country's sport authority said it would cap salary spending. The country's soccer association warned of unsustainable levels of spending by local clubs.
The official Xinhua news agency warned last month about "irrational" outbound investment deals including those in sports - a rare note of caution amid a drive to boost China's standing.
China wants to host and win the World Cup but is currently only No. 81 in FIFA's rankings, below sporting minnows like Curacao and the tiny island nation of St Kitts & Nevis, with a population of just 56,000 people.
The national team coach resigned last October after defeats to Uzbekistan and Syria left a bid to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in tatters. Italian Marcello Lippi has since been installed as coach to revive the team's fortunes.
A LUCKY HAND?
Spencer, now a restaurant owner as well as an agent, was at a card tournament when he met a representative of an English second tier club looking for investment. In May last year, the rep called: did Spencer know any likely bidders?
"I could, at that point, have said to him, 'sorry mate I don't', because I didn't. I said let me look into this," said Spencer. "Five weeks later we had a Chinese billionaire in London meeting the soccer club's representatives."
That deal didn't work, but it opened the door for others.
Spencer says he brings to the table Chinese connections he's made over four years in the country running a restaurant business.
But while the opportunities are there, so too are the risks, as deals stall, like the deal for former Italian champions AC Milan, or falter, like a recent deal for English team Middlesborough.
The low profile and opaque background of Chinese buyers is starting to raise questions among soccer's governing bodies.
The Milan sale has been delayed because the Chinese investors are yet to get Beijing's approval for the deal.
Meanwhile, English clubs report an avalanche of visitors, would-be investors and advisers - most uninvited and unknown.
Middlemen like Jarvis say they are convinced a deal will eventually go badly wrong and potentially hurt anyone associated with it.
"Just think of it as pass-the-parcel with a grenade. Someone is going to get blown up," he said.
($1 = 0.7996 pounds)
(Reporting by Adam Jourdan; Additional reporting by Brenda Goh and Clara Ferreira Marques; Editing by Martin Howell)