Sportal sets sights on Orchard's AIM listing

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The Independent Online

Sportal, the sports internet group, is understood to be in talks with Orchard with a view to reversing into the listed former furniture maker.

Sportal, the sports internet group, is understood to be in talks with Orchard with a view to reversing into the listed former furniture maker.

However, Orchard, which is now little more than a shell company, is thought to be talking to at least one other party that is also keen to use it to secure a stock market listing. Orchard shares, that are quoted on AIM, closed on Friday at a little under 11/2p: however, a deal is expected to be struck at 4p a share, so valuing the new company at approximately £80m, which includes about £15m of cash.

Sportal is one of Britain's most successful private internet start-ups. Since its establishment in 1998 by Rob Her- sov, Sportal has grown dramatically, now employing 150 people in 11 countries. Its backers include Fininvest, the Italian media group headed by the country's former president, Silvio Berlusconi; BSkyB; Nomura, and 3i. Sportal's most recent coup came when it paid £7m to run the official Euro 2000 website, which attracted 6 million hits a day during the football tournament.

Mr Hersov was approached earlier this year by French media group Canal Plus but the talks broke down, ending his hopes of clinching a deal which would have valued Sportal at £270m. Nevertheless, the popularity of online sports specialists was demonstrated in May when BSkyB paid £301m for Sports Internet Group.

Orchard shares returned from suspension in January and promptly leapt to almost 5p in the anticipation of a technology company being injected into the shell. But the stock market's recent aversion to technology stocks has - until now - made such a deal more difficult, and the shares have tailed off.

Orchard, which formerly made sofas, received a boost last month when the family trust of David Rowland, the legendary speculator, invested £2m in the company.

Mr Rowland - who earned his reputation in the 1970s - has successfully ridden the crest of the wave of the boom in technology stocks experienced in the last couple of years. His most lucrative shareholdings have included Autonomy, 365 Corporation and Demon.

Mr Rowland was also behind JellyWorks, the internet incubator which is run by his son Jonathan, and that last month merged with Shore Capital, the investment boutique.

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