Football crazy

Will English Premiership disappear from China’s screens this season?

Football crazy

You think you feel bad, you’ve cost the Chens their marriage

If you doubted how seriously the Chinese take football, consider the marital problems of a couple in Chongqing. According to the China News Service, the Chens may get divorced over a match between Germany and Argentina.

The 25 year-old wife, a longtime Argentina fan, was reluctant to have a baby after they married. However, she signed a contract with her Germany-supporting husband confirming that she would get pregnant this year if Argentina won. If Germany beat the South American side, though, she was promised four more childless years.

In the event, Argentina (and Mrs Chen) were routed four-nil. Her husband ridiculed Diego Maradona’s team – an ill-judged move as it turned out, as she then left him. His mother now insists her son gets a divorce unless Mrs Chen agrees to have a baby. The couple remain at odds, writes the Shanghai Daily, long after the World Cup’s conclusion.

It’s that passion that Carson Yeung is hoping to cash-in on. The Hong Kong tycoon bought English Premiership club Birmingham City last year, and this week took the team on a tour of China in hope of widening the club’s fanbase. Yeung’s Bluenoses have fixtures in Beijing, Shenyang and Guangzhou in what the Birmingham Mail refers to it as Yeung’s “Chinese revolution”. In the forthcoming season the players will also strut their stuff in kit made by Chinese sportswear firm, Xtep.

But there’s a spanner in the works and one that may disrupt Yeung’s grand vision. It looks increasingly likely that no one in China will be able to watch Birmingham (or any other English Premiership team) on TV this coming year.

The Nanfang Daily reports that the TV rights to broadcast the English Premiership may lapse, unless a deal is done in the next few days. The rights had been held by WinTV, but the newspaper quotes a Win company source admitting that it probably won’t be able to renew the deal – and is laying off staff after incurring losses.

WinTV bought the rights to televise English football in China back in 2007. The three-season deal was premised on it being able to sell the games to local cable operators, internet partners and mobile phone companies. It hoped the lure of stars like Wayne Rooney and Didier Drogba would foster a pay-TV market, and paid $50 million for the rights.

Then the reality: in 2008 it earned only Rmb32.7 million ($4.8 million) in pay-TV revenues. Titan Sports says the heavy losses were down to a failure to persuade fans to pay to watch games.

Perhaps they should have foreseen the challenge. Historically, the English Premiership had been aired free on CCTV, and the Chinese state broadcaster still shows a host of games at no cost – including matches from the top Spanish and Italian divisions and the European Champions League. In sum: there’s a lot of free, high quality football for the Chinese to watch, so why pay for English games?

In fact, Titan says that the English Premiership has approached CCTV about showing its games again – offering a 50% discount on the viewing rights fee that it charged WinTV three years ago. But the Chinese channel has demurred, saying it has enough football matches to fill its timeslots already.

If English football does depart China’s screens, it could prove a big miscalculation for the Premiership’s commercial executives. Chinese enthusiasm for the beautiful game in general shows no sign of diminishing. The man who runs the Chinese Football Association, Wei Di, has announced he wants China to bid to host FIFA’s 2026 World Cup. After the success of the 2008 Beijing Olympics this could well be the biggest no-brainer in FIFA’s history. (After all, if it became host, China would throw huge resources at the event, which would help further develop the game domestically.)

China 2026? It’s an enticing prospect and one that may even persuade the Chens to settle their marital differences…

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