Promises of the East fail to deliver for top clubs

The Premier League's dash for TV cash may cost it dear in China. Nick Harris reports
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A year ago today, Song Zheng, a Chinese television executive, appeared at a Beijing press conference to announce that his small pay-television station, WinTV, had won the exclusive rights to screen live Premier League games across China between August 2007 and 2010.

The event went largely unreported outside China, although the implications for English top-flight football were widespread and obvious. China has 1.3bn people, an economy on course to be the biggest in the world and a burgeoning middle class who have, in recent years, shown an appetite for live Premier League games.

Until WinTV won the rights, audiences were 10m and upwards on ESPN Star and its cable affiliates, and on the national broadcaster, China Central (CCTV), in some areas. Games were free, or cheap.

England's clubs, especially the big ones with global brand aspirations, have long viewed the Chinese market as a holy grail. Millions of fans, and pounds, are at stake. For sides with a Chinese player on their books, like Manchester City (Sun Jihai) and Manchester United (Dong Fangzhuo), the rewards should theoretically be easier to tap.

Other Chinese players currently in England include Zheng Zhi at Charlton and Li Tie at Sheffield United, who have a Chinese partner club, Chengdu Blades. Many clubs would jump at the chance to sign such a marketable asset, if he made the grade on the pitch.

So how exactly did Mr Song, WinTV's chief executive, choose to present his coup? By lauding the Premier League as a top-class product worth every yuan? By promising games, with Chinese stars, which would be easy to access and affordable? Er, not quite.

"No more free lunch!" he said. "The fans will have to endure the pain of the change. Let's say goodbye to free Premier League."

Bad move, based on erroneous assumptions. Uptake has been risibly low. WinTV predicted it would need 1.2m subscribers to make money but its latest confirmed numbers were 20,000. Pricing has been one problem. The initial fee was fixed at around £12 a month, but even since being dropped to £4, growth in take up has been slow.

"Most viewers in China just aren't used to paying for this content," says John Yan, an industry commentator who is also the vice-president of the Titan Sports Group, a major sports publisher in China. Yan has followed English football closely for eight years, including a spell living in England covering Sun Jihai's progress, and has also liaised with English clubs about their strategies for China. He gives a bleak assessment of WinTV's situation. "They're in deep shit," he says.

"Almost every other major league is on free TV here [in China]. It makes sense not to pay and watch those instead, whether it's Bundesliga, Serie A or La Liga. The EPL [English Premier League] is popular in China. I know because our readers want to know about it. But if the WinTV deal has showed anything, it's that popularity can quickly drop off.

"WinTV has not only changed the rules of market [by charging] but has destroyed its relationships with the major networks, including CCTV."

The headaches stem from WinTV's insistence that it can dictate carriage rules and prices, and that other broadcasters will have to play ball. It has not happened. In some places, including Shanghai, WinTV is effectively blocked. In others, WinTV's subscriber conditions have been prohibitive.

Zhang Yi, a 32-year-old teacher from Beijing and self-confessed "floating fan" of European football, explains: "You need to be a property owner to subscribe, and pay only at certain bank branches, in cash. You need to buy equipment up front, two boxes that are expensive and carry no guarantees of working in your neighbourhood. And if you already have other international stations in your house, as many people do, it doesn't work."

Many of the Premier League's clubs are probably unaware that virtually nobody watches them in China. Most possibly do not care that much, because they still share the £625m overseas rights fees from the League's global deals (around £25m of which is from China).

But the "big four" do mind. Arsenal, aware of "an issue" with low viewing figures last year, according to one source, launched a new Chinese website partnership last October, to push their brand. Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool are similarly active.

But live games available for free are vital in creating and sustaining an audience in a fickle, young market like China, where the pay-TV culture is demonstrably not mature enough to do that on its own.

Lessons can be learned from America's NBA, which realised decades ago that giving the rights away for nothing – to CCTV in its case – was crucial. It is one reason why basketball, and not the Premier League, remains sports viewers' No 1 choice in China.

Checking in: Chinese players in the English game

Hao Haidong (Sheffield United 2005-07)

Signed for just £1 from Dalian Shide. One subtitute's appearance.

Zheng Zhi (Charlton Athletic 2007-)

On loan from January to May and then secured a permanent transfer.

Li Weifeng (Everton 2002-03)

Two starts: one in the League and one FA Cup tie, on loan from Shenzhen.

Sun Jihai (Crystal Palace 1998-99, Manchester City 2002-)

25 games for Palace, 143 games for City.

Li Tie (Everton 2002-03, Sheffield United 2006-)

Loan from Liaoning Fushen, became a permanent move. 40 games for the Toffees, 1 League Cup match for Blades

Dong Fangzhuo (Manchester United 2004-)

Signed from Dalian Shide for £500,000. One League start – against Chelsea at the end of last season. Successful loan period at Royal Antwerp while waiting for a work permit.

Fan Zhiyi (Crystal Palace 1998-2001, Cardiff City 2002-03)

The central defender became one of the first Chinese players (with Sun Jihai) to play in England when he signed for Palace.

Zhang Enhua (Grimsby Town 2000)

Enjoyed four-month loan spell at the Mariners.