Football: China and the Premier League – what went wrong?

SHANGHAI: The English Premier League abruptly announced the termination of the big-money contract with its broadcaster in China in a two-paragraph statement on Thursday (Sep 4).

Streaming service PPTV had a reported US$700 million deal for the rights to show all 380 Premier League matches per season from 2019 to 2022, but that mammoth agreement is now dead.

Here’s what we know, and some key questions:

WHY DOES IT MATTER?

China, with its 1.4 billion population and the world’s second-biggest economy, is a prime growth market for the Premier League. Along with the NBA, the Premier League is the most-watched foreign sports competition in China.

The vast sum paid by PPTV helped swell the coffers of the elite English clubs. The early end of the agreement deals a withering blow to top-flight English football, with the 20 teams already scrambling to adjust to heavy losses caused by the coronavirus.

It remains to be seen whether the Premier League will be able to negotiate a new rights deal in China on terms of a similar scale due to the challenging economic and political conditions.

Some experts say PPTV overpaid for the rights.

HOW DID WE GET HERE?

According to British media, the fall-out dates back to March, when PPTV reportedly failed to make a £160 million (US$210 million) payment for coverage of the 2019-2020 season.

The Premier League gave little away in its brief statement on Thursday, while PPTV, in its response, made reference to the coronavirus pandemic said: “After many rounds of talks, there remain disagreements on the value of rights between PP and the Premier League.”

According to the BBC, citing sources, PPTV offered to extend the deal – but under revised terms, taking into account the empty stands and the heavily disrupted fixture list caused by the coronavirus.

The Premier League enjoys a big following in China
The Premier League enjoys a big following in China AFP/HECTOR RETAMAL

WHAT IS PPTV AND WHO OWNS IT?

Owned by the Suning Holding Group, PPTV is a prominent streaming website that also shows several other major European football leagues and the UEFA Champions League.

Suning also owns Italian giants Inter Milan and the Chinese Super League team Jiangsu Suning.

Founded in 1990, the company has more than 280,000 employees worldwide, according to its company profile, and is involved in everything from retail to financial services and real estate.

In April, retail service provider Suning.com reported revenues in 2019 of 270 billion yuan (US$40 billion).

IS POLITICS INVOLVED?

The great unknown.

Relations between the British and Chinese governments have become strained in recent months.

Ties soured after London ordered the phased removal of Chinese telecoms giant Huawei from its 5G network.

Britain also offered citizenship to millions of Hong Kong nationals in response to a sweeping new security law that Beijing has imposed on the former British colony.

The risks of the Premier League getting tangled up in thorny diplomatic issues were underlined in December, when Chinese state broadcaster CCTV pulled a game between Arsenal and Manchester City after Gunners midfielder Mesut Ozil expressed support for China’s Uighur minority, which is facing a crackdown in Xinjiang province.

WHAT’S THE VIEW INSIDE CHINA?

AFP was unable to reach Suning for comment and Chinese state media has stuck to reporting the facts of the Premier League-PPTV split, rather than offering an opinion.

One prominent columnist for a major state sports newspaper declined to comment because of the sensitivity of the issue.

A respected commentator accused British media of making a non-political story into a political one.

Opinion among football fans is split on the Twitter-like Weibo, where the story generated more than 100 million views, with some blaming PPTV and others accusing the Premier League for the collapse of the agreement.

But with the Premier League kicking off again in just eight days’ time, Chinese fans will be desperate to see a new deal to get English football on their screens.