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Alibaba Buys Half of Soccer Team

The e-commerce giant is investing in Guangzhou Evergrande Football Club, diversifying its investment portfolio beyond retail and logistics.

E-commerce giant Alibaba Group said Thursday it has bought a 50 percent stake in China’s reigning soccer champions Guangzhou Evergrande Football Club for approximately 1.2 billion yuan, or about $192 million, diversifying its investment portfolio beyond retail and logistics.

Alibaba, which is preparing for an IPO later this year, has embarked on a spending spree of late. so far this year, it has invested in portal Youku, online mapping service Autonavi, film studio Chinavision Media and department store and supermarket operator InTime Retail. Just last week it said it was buying a 10 percent stake in postal service Singapore Post Limited for 312.5 million Singapore dollars, or about $248 million at current exchange.

Several Asian companies have increased their brand reputation and visibility through sports. Japanese companies, including mobile phone service provider SoftBank and e-commerce firm Rakuten, own baseball teams, while a number of Asian companies also sponsor Europe-based soccer clubs.

“It has been a trend for Chinese internet companies to invest in ‘physical’ businesses recently, mostly brick and mortar,” said Andrea Fenn, digital strategy expert at Fireworks, a mainland digital consultancy.

“Hedging investment to avoid a sudden web bubble burst is a reason, but I also think increasingly online businesses realize the importance of merging their activities in the offline world, which is what I call ‘post-digital business’. This particularly applies to Alibaba, which is the most ‘post-digital’ of Chinese Internet giants, in that its impact on offline, traditional retail network has been dramatic,” she said.

Zennon Kapron, managing director of financial consultancy Kapronasia, said he believes these diverse investments are all about tapping in to popular middle class pursuits in China, such as sports and movies, as well as growing sectors, including healthcare and education.

“I think Alibaba is looking at what the growth areas in China are going to be. Earlier this week or last week they invested in a hospital, and health is a growing area. [Alibaba chairman and founder] Jack Ma has mentioned before that education, healthcare and entertainment are going to be particular growth areas,” Kapron said.

Kapron said he thinks the company is trying to diversify itself in the run up to the IPO.

“With [fellow Chinese e-commerce company] JD.com’s recent successful IPO based almost solely on e-commerce. It makes sense for Alibaba to bring a better value proposition to investors,” he said.