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Dalian Wanda plans rival to Uefa Champions League

Chinese pitch breakaway tournament to Europe’s most prestigious club competition

China's richest man is backing plans to launch a rival to the Uefa Champions League, aiming for European leagues and clubs to join a new competition that would redraw the power structure and finances at the top of the sport.

Dalian Wanda Group, the property and entertainment conglomerate run by billionaire Wang Jianlin, said it is in talks with the game's power brokers across the continent to create a breakaway tournament to Europe's most prestigious club competition.

Wanda is promising more places for the sport's heavyweight teams and a steep increase in broadcasting rights revenues.

The ambitious proposals are part of China's designs on conquering the world's most popular sport — on and off the pitch.

Chinese groups have spent billions of dollars acquiring stakes in European football clubs and sports companies in recent years. This buying spree was sparked by President Xi Jinping, whose stated desire is to transform football-mad China into a "great sports nation" capable of winning a World Cup.

Marco Bogarelli, strategic director of Wanda Sports Holding, the privately owned Chinese group's sports arm, said its aim was to gain participation from the national leagues in Europe's "big five" TV markets — England, Spain, Italy, France and Germany — that contribute the majority of Champions League broadcasting revenues.

"Many talented players are deciding to play in Asia instead of coming to Europe," he said. "One day, Asia will have the money for Cristiano Ronaldo to play there . . . It is in the common interest for these five leagues to have football growing in Europe [in order to] maintain its leadership."

He said talks have begun with Spain's La Liga and Italy's Serie A, with plans to initiate discussions with England's Premier League, Germany's Bundesliga and France's Ligue 1 after the Euro 2016 championships, which stages its final match on Sunday.

Wanda also hopes to win backing from Uefa, European football's governing body, but is willing to propose a separate competition should it object to the plans. "There has to be a future that has more freedom, based on the needs of the clubs and the leagues where they can make a choice," said Mr Bogarelli.

A senior executive at one of the big five leagues said: "This is very well planned. The proposal is realistic."

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Pitched battle for future of Uefa Champions League

Uefa is already under pressure to enact major changes to the existing Champions League, the lucrative annual competition that pits Europe's top teams against each other, as clubs push to secure greater financial rewards.

"It is not the first time that there has been speculation regarding the possibility of a breakaway league, and it probably won't be the last," said Theodore Theodoridis, Uefa's interim general secretary.

"When taking any decisions, we will take into account not only financial rewards to clubs but also the greater good of the game and its development across the continent."

Two people familiar with the talks said the proposals were being driven by the interests of a "handful" of clubs in Spain and Italy, particularly Real Madrid, last season's Champions League winners and the highest-earning club in the world. Real Madrid did not respond to requests for comment.

Matthias Hangst | Getty Images

Uefa holds two annual club competitions, the Champions League featuring the 32 top teams across Europe, and a second-tier tournament dubbed the Europa League.

Wanda's proposal is to create a single expanded competition that would feature more than 32 teams, but fewer than 64. It would guarantee at least six places for each of the big five leagues. Currently, England, Germany and Spain are granted four slots in the Champions League, while France, Italy and Portugal are allotted three places each.

Smaller nations would have fewer places overall in any new European competition.

Traditional powerhouses, such as Inter Milan in Italy and Manchester United in England, would have gained from Wanda's proposed set-up this year. Each has failed to qualify for next season's Champions League after finishing just outside the qualification positions in their domestic leagues.

Wanda said its proposed competition would be more attractive to broadcasters, creating more high-profile clashes that would attract audiences in Europe's largest markets, with revenues expected to rise 30-35 percent.

In the U.K., BT has paid 897 million pounds for a three-year deal to broadcast the Champions and Europa League competitions. Mediaset has reportedly paid 700 million euros for the rights to screen the tournaments in Italy for the three years to 2018.

La Liga said it was reviewing the proposals but declined to comment further. Didier Quillot, chief executive of France's Ligue de Football Professionnel, said that though he was aware of clubs being disgruntled with the status quo, he had not been approached by Wanda and was "not favorable" to its plans.

Serie A, Bundesliga and the Premier League declined to comment.

Wanda's move comes during a power vacuum at Uefa. Its president Michel Platini resigned in May after failing to overturn a ban from football. The body is due to elect a new leader in September.

The continent's biggest clubs are already pushing Uefa to institute substantial format changes to the Champions League. Clubs, particularly in Spain and Italy, are battling for more matches between Europe's biggest teams that could prove more lucrative in terms of commercial rights and match-day revenues. But smaller nations are resisting proposals that would reduce their participation.

Leagues in Spain, France and Italy may be the most interested in joining a breakaway tournament, as their top clubs are more reliant on revenues from pan-European competitions than are their English and German rivals.

This year, English clubs will each earn at least 100 million pounds from the Premier League's 5.1 billion pound broadcasting deal with Sky and BT. German teams will soon benefit from the 4.6 billion euro deal with Sky and Eurosport to screen live Bundesliga matches.

A new competition would help Mr. Wang — whose estimated $28.7 billion fortune was built in domestic real estate — to achieve his goal of creating a global leisure and entertainment empire that can satisfy the tastes of China's burgeoning middle class.

Wanda has acquired a 20 percent stake in Atlético Madrid, the runner-up in this season's Champions League. The company bought the Ironman Triathlon in August for $650 million and has acquired ski and golf resorts around the world.

Last year, it paid $1.2 billion for Infront Media, the Swiss company led by Philippe Blatter, the nephew of disgraced former Fifa president Sepp Blatter, which distributes TV rights for some of the world's biggest sporting events.

Executives at Infront, now part of Wanda Sports Holding, are leading the negotiations over the proposed tournament for which it wants to sell worldwide broadcasting rights. Champions League rights are distributed by rival Swiss sports rights agency Team Marketing AG.

Wanda's proposals are for games to be played over two-week rounds on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights. This would create six "prime time" slots for broadcasters, with each match night featuring a club from England, Spain, Italy, Germany and France in the tournament's early stages.

One leading European football official said Wanda must contend with the game's complex politics. "It's naive to say, because we have the money, we will make this happen," he said.