By Andrei Khalip and Sergio Goncalves
LISBON (Reuters) - Portuguese soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo has teamed up with his country's top hotel chain, Pestana, in a joint venture that his partner hopes will help open new markets in Asia and reinforce its expansion into Spain and the United States.
Ronaldo is following the footsteps of other sports stars who have invested in hotels, including tennis players Andy Murray and Andre Agassi and soccer's Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs -- but Ronaldo's venture stands out for its global ambition.
He and Pestana plan to open two hotels under the Pestana CR7 brand -- CR7 is a trademark combination of Ronaldo's initials and jersey number -- by end-2018, having already tested the market at home in Portugal with an initial two hotels.
The first Pestana CR7 hotels have opened without fanfare in Madeira and Lisbon, generating positive results, said Pestana CEO Jose Theotonio.
"The joint brand is opening possibilities to us, Pestana, in places where we would have hardly gotten alone," he told Reuters at Lisbon's ornate Pestana Palace Hotel, temporary home of pop star Madonna who moved to Portugal in September.
"We have contacts to enter other markets, where the brand CR7 is strong, in Asia, the Middle East," Theotonio added, citing interest from mainland China, Macau, Dubai and Qatar.
Both partners hail from the Portuguese resort island of Madeira and are investing a total of 75 million euros (£66 million) in the venture, including in the two hotels already opened.
The next two hotels will open in Madrid and in New York's Times Square in late 2018, Theotonio said. The CR7 hotels feature carpets with Ronaldo shoe prints, trophies and foosball tables, and the sound of crowds cheering fill the corridors.
Separately, Pestana will roll out several of its own new establishments in Europe and the United States.
Further expansion of the CR7-branded hotel chain will depend on the success of the New York and Madrid hotels, but Pestana's market studies show that "contrary to what one might think", the Ronaldo CR7 brand is well-known in the United States.
Pestana, a family-owned chain of 90 upmarket hotels, hopes the Ronaldo partnership will help it compete for a bigger slice of the international luxury market, against larger foreign rivals such as Spain's Melia, France's AccorHotels and U.S.-based giant Marriott International.
Pestana opened its first hotel in Madeira and has since spread to mainland Portugal, Europe, Africa and the Americas. Two-thirds of its revenues come from Portugal where it is the largest operator with a 5 percent market share, according to Deloitte.
It aims to reach 100 hotels by early 2019, including the CR7 hotels, and invest 200 million euros over the next five years, helped by steady earnings growth on the back of Portugal's tourist boom. Earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) have doubled since 2013 to about 120 million euros in 2017 and are set to hit 140 million to 150 million in 2019 or 2020, the CEO said.
Ronaldo, the world's best-paid soccer player, said he had long dreamt of owning a hotel. At 32, the Real Madrid striker is three years away from a soccer player's average retirement age.
"In Madeira where I was born hotels are an important industry that creates value and it always interested me a lot," Ronaldo said in a written reply to questions from Reuters.
Named Forbes’ highest-paid soccer player this year with $93 million in earnings, Ronaldo said he is "very easy" about his future, having various investments in different sectors.
(Editing by Mark Bendeich and Edmund Blair)