FLORENCE, Italy (VN) — Wanda Sports — the Chinese multi-million dollar giant linked to ASO and RCS Sport takeovers — made its first big step in cycling with its Tour of Guangxi last month.
Wanda rolled out its own stage race at home after deals abroad: a $650-million acquisition of World Triathlon Corporation and Ironman, and the Infront deal with events like the Tour de Suisse. As the CEO of Wanda Sports China, Yang David, says, “Cristiano Ronaldo is busy, but he finds time to come to China, so why not cycling?”
Yang stood near the start of the final stage of the six-day race in South China’s Guangxi region. Riders signed on to begin the day, including the winner of four stages Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors), but hardly anyone took note of the man in the suit next to one of the race organizer’s cars.
“I don’t sleep much,” Yang told VeloNews with a slight laugh while staff ran around preparing for the stage. “We don’t sleep, that’s why we can stay calm because we get many things done at night.”
Yang heads the sports arm of Dalian Wanda Group, which earned a reported $38.40 billion in revenue last year.
Those far away in the U.S. or Europe may laugh at the race in a country not known for its cycling culture, but based on the spectators, Wanda and Yang have a big base on which they may build. Some cities had as many or more roadside viewers lining the streets than one may see during a Tour de France stage.
The situation is much different from three years ago, when the UCI and Global Cycling Promotion joined forces with the city’s government to host the last of only four editions of the Tour of Beijing. Viewers from afar complained, and rightly so, about the lack of local spectators and the amount of smog.
“The Tour of Beijing was honestly more of the government’s heavy hand. I think it was good to have the race, but this one is more locally organized and by a private group. It’s a real organic race,” Yang said.
“They have told me, it reminds me of the Tour, it seems like a town festival everywhere the race passes.”
Wanda overlooked the capital city of Beijing and bustling Shanghai for the Guangxi region, with its Karst peaks and rivers. It lacks the economic muscle of other areas, but makes up for it with its clean air and lush landscapes.
“What we learned is that we have a huge number of fans here in China. They all love cycling and want to know more about cycling as a sport,” he continued. “This is the time for China to put more force behind its sport. It’s such a great sport that I think that China is at the point where it needs to make the jump to the next level.”
Some teams moaned that the season extended too far into the year. With the WorldTour starting in mid-January, the Tour of Guangxi ended a 10-month run of top-level racing. However, it opened up business opportunities for cycling. Organizers recognized the opportunities are important for the sport and sponsors.
Opportunities are plentiful in a country of 1.411 billion and which is ranked second to the U.S. in gross domestic product. Giuseppe Saronni and Mauro Gianetti signed a deal last year with the United Arab Emirates and airline giant Emirates, but they were close to closing one with TJ Sport.
“We have already developed badminton, table tennis, basketball. Cycling is such an exciting sport but it is under-appreciated,” Yang said. “I think that if the stars come here more often, it helps. Think about it, Cristiano Ronaldo is busy, but he finds time to come to China, so why not cycling? Kobe Bryant comes too. It’s business and this is a huge market. If you don’t come here, then you’ll never develop the fans.”
Yang relaxed as he spoke. The week went off without a hitch. The race mobilized many police and created safety measures during a week of high alert around the Communist Party’s National Congress held once every five years.
“I can’t wait for next year,” he added, “It will be easier.”
It could be easier now for Wanda to work its way into Europe’s top cycling organizations ASO and RCS Sport. Or perhaps buy them, as rumors have suggested.
Wanda sent delegates to the races to learn from the best and met with ASO boss Yann Le Moenner. Such a deal would not be unheard of in sport, given China owns both soccer clubs AC Milan and FC Inter Milan. The same Wanda spent $52 million to by a 20 percent stake in the Atletico Madrid. Yang would not give much away, but said, “We are looking at all possible opportunities.”