Comcast buys majority stake in Universal Studios Japan for $1.5 billion

OSAKA (Reuters) - Comcast Corp said it will buy a majority stake in Universal Studios Japan for $1.5 billion, its biggest investment outside the United States and part of an aggressive expansion of its theme park business globally.

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Propelled by the huge popularity of Harry Potter attractions, its Universal Studios parks have become a core growth business for Comcast, which saw its $45 billion bid for Time Warner Cable Inc fail on antitrust concerns this year.

In addition to further investments undertaken at its U.S. parks, the No. 1 U.S. cable company is also planning a theme park in Beijing as well as an indoor theme park in Moscow.

“We will make more investments - not only Osaka but also other areas,” Chief Executive Brian Roberts told a news conference.

Comcast, which owns Universal Studios and Universal Theme Parks through its NBCUniversal unit, said it will buy 51 percent of USJ Co, the holding company for the theme park operator, from Goldman Sachs, Seoul-based private equity firm MBK and other owners.

The deal gives USJ an enterprise value of $6.2 billion, Comcast said. Goldman Sachs, MBK and other current owners will retain an interest in the Japanese theme park operator.

Thanks to its “Wizarding World of Harry Potter” attraction, which opened in July last year, annual visitors jumped by a fifth to a record 12.7 million visitors in the last financial year.

Tokyo’s Disney Resort, which includes Disneyland and DisneySea, also had a record year with 31.4 million visitors though its growth was just 0.3 percent.

Roberts said that while a deal had only been finalised in the last few weeks, it had been on the company’s radar since its 2011 purchase of NBCUniversal.

USJ had planned a Tokyo listing this year, but it was shelved due to concerns that three IPOs for Japan Post group companies in November worth a combined $11.5 billion would saturate the market, two sources familiar with the matter have told Reuters.

Roberts said there were no plans for an IPO in the near term, although its new board would revisit the idea.

The Osaka theme park opened in 2001 and listed on the Tokyo bourse’s Mothers Market for start-ups in 2007. Struggling with falling visitor numbers, it was delisted two years later and sold to a consortium led by Goldman Sachs.

Media have reported that USJ is planning a new theme park on the Japanese southern island of Okinawa. Current USJ CEO Glenn Gumpel said Okinawa may well be a near-term opportunity but added it was too early to say anything further on the matter.

(This story corrects in second paragraph to show Comcast had bid for Time Warner Cable, not Time Warner)

Additional reporting by Chang-Ran Kim and Taiga Uranaka in Tokyo; Editing by Edwina Gibbs