- The Washington Times - Friday, June 12, 2009

BEIJING (AP) - Barely a month ago, Jianhua ‘Kenny’ Huang was relatively unknown outside business circles, just one of many entrepreneurs working to match money and business opportunities across the Pacific.

Now, he’s shot into the U.S. sports headlines with a bid to buy a chunk of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Huang followed that with a deal enlisting the help of Major League Baseball in setting up a youth league in China.

The bold moves have positioned Huang as China’s closest thing to a sports mogul, not that he embraces the title. He prefers to be called a “patriotic businessman,” smoothing relations with the government officials who guard the portals to China’s sports world.

“Huang is a guy with real vision but also the ability to make it a reality,” said Marc Ganis, president of Chicago-based sports consulting firm Sportscorp Ltd. and Huang’s partner in a number of ventures.

Despite the attention-getting moves, natty suits and designer eyeglasses, Huang prefers a low profile. He slipped out of a news conference announcing the baseball deal after briefly answering questions limited to that specific venture. Public relations handlers said no official biography was available.

Chinese media reports say Huang was born in 1964 into a well-connected family in the southern city of Guangzhou, and was a star badminton player before quitting to achieve a higher education.

Having shown a flair for languages, he studied economics and finance at New York’s Columbia University before working at the New York Stock Exchange, where, according to the newspaper Economic Observer, he dealt primarily with investors from Japan and the Chinese-speaking world. He left in 1991 to work as a private financial adviser, building up a client list among mainland Chinese investors, the paper said.

Huang was quoted as saying that he recognized how sports helped him bond with his American classmates, prompting his entry into the industry.

His landmark deal with Cleveland would give the investor group he leads 15 percent of the Cavaliers. With the team valued at $477 million last year by Forbes, that would amount to about $72 million.

In baseball, Huang promises to inject several million dollars per year into the Chinese youth league for a decade.

While those relatively modest investments do not put Huang in the same league as Manchester United and Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Malcolm Glazer or Chelsea’s Roman Abramovich, they are nonetheless remarkable for a Chinese business group, most of which favor less glamorous investments in resources and manufacturing.

Sports marketing itself has yet to take off in China, with domestic leagues suffering from a lack of fans and sponsors.

Huang entered the field cautiously, first partnering with Ganis to broker deals with the Houston Rockets and New York Yankees to market the teams to Chinese businesses.

The Cavaliers deal seems a perfect fit. For years, the NBA, eager to internationalize, had been pushing for an international group to become involved in team ownership.

Huang had the connections and ambition to put together an investment group, bringing in Adrian Cheng, whose family controls Hong Kong’s New World Development real estate conglomerate. The deal still needs league approval, something it is almost certain to obtain.

The NBA already has a huge fan base in China _ mainly because of Houston Rockets center Yao Ming.

The same can’t be said for U.S. baseball, despite its popularity in Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea. Although China has a seven-team professional league, few Chinese know much about the sport and games are rarely shown on television.

Worse still, baseball has been cut from the Olympic program, giving China’s medal-obsessed sports bureaucrats little incentive to award it funding.

“It’s a work in progress and we’re going step by step,” said Lei Jun, chairman of the Chinese Baseball Association, whose professional duties also include overseeing development of softball, hockey and handball.

Ganis says support from Major League Baseball will be crucial. He said baseball can be sold successfully as a sport built on team play and organization rather than individualism, and on its non-contact nature.

“It’s an excellent opportunity and I’m very confident in the future of Chinese baseball,” Huang said.

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