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China Growth May Lead English Soccer to Give Away TV Rights

Arsenal plays in China
Theo Walcott of Arsenal plays the ball during the pre-season friendly match between Hangzhou Greentown and Arsenal at Yiwu Meihu Stadium on July 16, 2011 in Hangzhou, China. Photographer: Lintao Zhang/Getty Images.

English soccer’s Premier League may have to give away its television rights for free to build its fanbase in China.

Super Sports Media pays the league for rights, then sells the matches -- featuring teams including Manchester United and Liverpool -- to regional free-to-air broadcasters, which cover areas containing about one-third of China’s 1.3 billion people.

While that’s an improvement from the 30,000 who subscribed to see games two years ago, the league is considering how to strengthen its position when the current deal expires after next season. Discussions about the next cycle of overseas contracts are to begin in the next few months.

The league’s 3 billion pounds ($4.6 billion) in overseas and domestic broadcast rights makes it the world’s richest soccer competition, yet China has been a struggle. Only state-owned CCTV can broadcast sports nationwide, and it won’t overpay, said Pierre Justo, Asia director of sport and media for data company TNS/CSM Media Research.

CCTV’s approach is “if you want to reach the Chinese consumer, pay us then we would broadcast you,” Justo said. “The logic is reversed.”

Super Sports is in the second year of a three-season agreement after taking over from Win TV, which ran a pay-per-view service. Chinese restrictions on national sports broadcasts give CCTV leverage in negotiations with teams and leagues.

Recognition of the league is rising with the wider availability, Super Sports Senior Vice President Clark Xu said.

‘Significant Growth’

“We’ve see a strong increase in ratings verses last season because people were still recovering from the Win TV time,” said Xu. “Lots of people didn’t realize they could watch it for free but now they all know.”

Super Sports wouldn’t release its viewership figures for English soccer. The games have had a “significant increase” in viewers because matches now reach more homes, the Premier League said. The league is considering its television options in the country.

“China remains a very unique broadcast market that requires a flexible and tailored approach in order to satisfy the various objectives of our clubs and stakeholders,” the league said in a statement to Bloomberg News. “As with a number of our key international markets, this is a long-term strategy and one that requires continual assessment.”

The $60 million contract with Win TV was made because team owners preferred cash over viewers, the opposite of the strategy pursued by the National Basketball Association. While the American league gets little money up front, its games reach the entire country on CCTV.

Simple Plan

“My remit at the Premier League was beautifully simple,” Phil Lines, who was the chief negotiator for the league before moving to Creative Artists Agency LLC, said during an interview in London. “Go and sell for as much as you can.”

Win TV failed because China doesn’t have a culture of pay television, said Xu. His company sells its rights to 18 regional channels as well as internet sites. The games are broadcast free of charge and Super Sports shares advertising revenues. The channels cumulatively reach about 500 million people.

Xu, a Harvard Business School graduate, declined to say how much the rights costs, except that they were “more favorable” than Win TV’s deal. Lines said the amount the Premier League gets from China “is a fraction” of what it makes from deals with broadcasters in Hong Kong and Singapore, where the rights are worth about $250 million.

The Premier League’s model of opting for the biggest check can’t work in China because of the lack of competition there, said Xu. Super Sports secured the rights after Win TV failed to get the funding necessary for a new three-year cycle, he said.

Table Tennis

Even the most-popular sports in China have to yield to CCTV’s dominant position. More than 100 million Chinese watched the final of the world table tennis championships last year. The International Table Tennis Federation’s global television sales for the entire year were less than $3 million, according to the ITTF’s marketing director Steve Dainton.

Justo, who’s lived in China for 12 years, said teams with Chinese athletes attract the most viewers. NBA games featuring Houston Rockets All-Star center Yao Ming doubled viewership figured, and then dropped when he retired, Justo said.

Xu said the Premier League could enjoy the same outcome if a Chinese soccer equivalent to Yao could be found.

Hunt for Players

“I can guarantee you will have a lot of followers here, tremendous media coverage and also it’s very likely you’ll be able to sign up one or more major Chinese companies as sponsors for the club,” he said. Liverpool recently invited two young players to train with its academy and Chelsea has sponsored a televised talent search. Currently there isn’t a Chinese player starring in the Premier League.

The success of tennis player Li Na, who won the French Open last year, is another example of star power.

“Nobody knew about tennis five or six years ago, in fact most of the people didn’t even know what kind of game it was,” said Justo. “Now the third-largest shown sport on TV is tennis.”

The Premier League will start its next rights sales later this year.

“It will be very difficult unless they clinch a deal with the national broadcaster,” Justo said. The league could give away the rights or accept a much lower rate to increase its presence in China, he said.

Super Sports has yet to decide whether it will be in the running.

“It’s going to depend on our conversation with the Premier League and the collective decisions of the clubs,” said Xu.

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