Football: Audience of 100m to see Palace

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UNLIKELY THOUGH it sounds, Crystal Palace's First Division meeting with Sheffield United tomorrow will be the most eagerly anticipated football match in the world this weekend. The game will be the first English league game to be broadcast on live national television in China - and the spectacle is forecast to draw an audience of more than 100 million people.

This historic occasion is due to one man, Fan Zhiyi, who, as well as being the captain of the Chinese national side, also happens to be a Palace defender. His move to the south London club in the summer - along with compatriot and fellow defender Sun Jihai - has prompted a meteoric rise in demand for the English game in his home country.

It is not unusual for Nationwide League games to be broadcast internationally - CSI Ltd, the League's rights' distributor, regularly sells matches to Malaysia, Australia, South Africa, Israel, New Zealand, Singapore and the Middle East - but the move into China is extraordinary for its enormous earning potential.

Neither the League nor CSI would disclose how much they will be paid for the rights to the game, but one Chinese journalist in London said: "It was reported [in China] that it was very expensive." The revenues the League receives from international rights' sales are distributed between all its 72 member clubs. "It's an agreement for the benefit of the League as a whole," a spokesman said.

The spokesman added the Nationwide's collective income each year is currently worth around pounds 35m, with pounds 25m coming from BSkyB and the remainder from sponsorship deals (with the likes of Nationwide and Bass) and overseas television rights. The overseas rights income is therefore still a market to be exploited, especially if foreign players like Fan can attract such huge audiences in their home countries.

European football, in Asia particularly, is a booming business, as a spokesman in the cultural unit at the Chinese embassy in London confirmed. "It's very popular, especially in the last couple of years," he said.

The match will be screened by two stations, Chinese Central TV (a subscriber channel) and Shanghai cable, which operates on a pay-per-view basis.

The future possibilities for broadcasters appear to be huge, as the Japanese striker Hidetoshi Nakata's move to Perugia in Italy has already shown. Solely on the basis of Nakata's move, Perugia have secured a multi-million pound contract to have their games broadcast in Asia for six years.

Tomorrow's game is not likely to break all-time viewing figures in China - popular entertainment shows can attract 200m people - but Fan's involvement has certainly created a stir. "He is a household name," said Zhou Jie, a sportswriter with the Xinhua Chinese News Agency. "When you talk about soccer to a Chinese person, there is no one who doesn't know who he is.

"Before they [Fan and Sun] joined, Crystal Palace was not so popular in China, but since, everyone knows them. Crystal Palace have surpassed Manchester United and Aston Villa." If only the Eagles could fly so high on the pitch.