China's Evergrande Taobao FC is set to become Asia's first listed soccer club, in a move that could bring the kind of transparency Beijing is seeking as part of its reforms of the sport.
The former Asian Champions League winners, who last month hired Brazil's World Cup-winning coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, have 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.
Chinese President Xi Jinping is a soccer enthusiast who is pushing for the country to host the World Cup tournament one day. Yet the men's national team languishes in 79th place in the world rankings of soccer's governing body FIFA.
In March, the government announced a far-reaching plan to raise the level of play and reform a sport tainted by corruption. Listing a club would be one way of improving transparency, as entities are obliged to disclose financial details to investors.
Evergrande's filing to the New Third Board referred to several recent policy announcements aimed at strengthening China's sports industry, including the March reform plan.
It noted that the listing would improve corporate governance at the club, which is jointly owned by Evergrande Real Estate and Alibaba.
The filing also outlined the financial challenges facing Evergrande, including a slowing economy which could hit advertising revenue, affecting the club's ability to pay players' and coaches' salaries and transfer fees.
Main owner heavily indebted
Although it is one of China's leading clubs, Evergrande is still dwarfed by globally recognized teams like Real Madrid, FC Bayern Munich and Manchester United.
Evergrande Real Estate, which owns 60 percent of the club, is the most indebted of China's top 10 developers, and in March received a $16 billion credit lifeline from banks as it struggled with a prolonged slump in the property sector.
"Evergrande Taobao is listing because they want to find new investors. Why? Because the current investors don't want to continue investing. Why? Because the burden's too great," a soccer commentator on Chinese state television told Reuters.
The club, which won the AFC Champions League in 2013, posted a loss of 265.1 million yuan in the first five months of 2015, after losing 482.6 million yuan in 2014 and 576.1 million yuan in 2013, according to its listing prospectus.
The club will list on an over-the-counter exchange, which has less stringent listing criteria than major stock exchanges. Evergrande 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 its 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, the club on Monday unveiled the signing of Brazilian midfielder Paulinho from Tottenham Hotspur in the English Premier League.
The player, who was a member of Scolari's squad in last year's World Cup, was signed for a four-year contract for a fee reported in British media to be around 9.8 million pounds ($15.29 million).
The club is worth about 10 billion yuan ($1.61 billion), Chinese media reported. That would be less than the nearly $3 billion market capitalization of Britain's Manchester United, but much larger than Italy's Juventus and Germany's Borussia Dortmund.
The listing is the latest soccer deal involving China.
Six months ago, property developer Dalian Wanda, controlled by China's richest man Wang Jianlin, bought 20 percent of Spain's Club Atletico de Madrid.
Another developer, Greentown China, controls Hangzhou Greentown Football Club of the Chinese Super League.