Jack Ma's Ant Financial makes a big European play via soccer

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HONG KONG (Nov 9): Jack Ma’s Ant Financial is getting a huge boost in Europe.

The world’s largest online financial services firm, controlled by the billionaire founder of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd, signed an agreement to become the official digital wallet for UEFA competitions. Ant’s Alipay will provide online payments and other financial services to Europe’s governing body for soccer till 2026, encompassing an estimated 420 matches watched by billions.

The tie-up lifts the global profile of Ant Financial, which powers Alibaba’s online malls and digital payments for hundreds of millions of Chinese users. Ma, an avid football fan, is trying to expand Alipay’s footprint abroad in part by tracking the country’s wave of tourists, but got stymied in the U.S., when regulators blocked Ant’s attempt to buy Moneygram International Inc. UEFA, in turn, gets a high-profile partner that can help it reach audiences in China.

Ant can “help UEFA reach and interact with a potential audience of billions in Asia,” Ant Financial Chief Executive Officer Eric Jing said in a statement. “Alipay will offer digital payment experiences to football fans using mobile phones and other technology innovations both online and on-site.”

Asian firms such as Ant are at the forefront of global financial technology, riding a wave of mobile phone adoption across the region. In China and India, the most populous nations in the world, more than half of adult consumers active online said they regularly use fintech services, according to a 2017 survey conducted by Ernst & Young.

Ant is the leader in Chinese digital payments, just ahead of Tencent Holdings Ltd’s WeChat Pay. Born out of an online payment system for Alibaba, the business has grown into a financial behemoth with few equals: its US$150 billion valuation dwarfs those of Goldman Sachs Group Inc and Morgan Stanley. The company’s Alipay and its global affiliates have 870 million users and handled as many as 256,000 transactions a second last year.

Formally known as Zhejiang Ant Small & Micro Financial Services Group Co, it has leveraged Alipay’s popularity to expand into everything from asset management to insurance, credit scoring, and lending. It raised roughly US$14 billion in its last round of funding, to bankroll expansions into Southeast Asia and other markets abroad.