English soccer’s Premier League is back, with Manchester United defeating Tottenham 1-0 in the season opener on Aug. 8. A decent start, but for many of China’s 170 million league fans—the most in the world—this season might prove to be a disappointment.
China’s sports fans are used to watching games for free, whether it’s the NBA or European football. But starting this season, many Premier League matches will be available via pay-per-view only.
The “culprit” is Beijing-based Super Sports Media, which paid the Premier League for broadcast rights in China (and Macau) for 2010 to 2019. It’s keeping the exclusive rights (link in Chinese) to 150 of the season’s 380 games—and will charge Chinese fans to watch them.
Previous to this season, the company sold games to regional free-to-air broadcasters, and to Internet streamers (including Tencent, Sina, PPTV, and LeTV) that usually offered the games for free.
The pay-per-view games will be available on the Super Sports Media website or mobile app, with each game costing 5.99 yuan ($0.95) for standard-definition or 9.99 yuan ($1.58) for high-definition viewing.
Many Chinese fans are outraged. “China’s football market is different from Europe’s… most of the Chinese fans can’t afford to pay six yuan for a live broadcast,” one fan wrote in an online soccer forum (link in Chinese). “You have the right to establish a paying era, while I have the right to boycott you.”
Meanwhile free-to-air national broadcaster CCTV will show one league game each week. That’s an improvement over recent years. The last time CCTV broadcast Premier League games was in the 2002-03 season, when three Chinese footballers played in the league.
This season three streamers—Tencent, Sina, and LeTV—will show all of their league games for free as well. They each paid about $18 million for the streaming rights to the 230 non-exclusive games. Last season two streamers, PPTV and LeTV, each paid about $11 million for the rights to all 380 games, as Chinese media reported (link in Chinese).
In mid-2010 Super Sports Media took over the Premier League’s broadcast rights from Win TV, which had signed a $60 million three-year contract with the league (2007 to 2009) but failed in China as it insisted on a pay-per-view model that didn’t yet fly with consumers.
Super Sports Media learned from its predecessor’s mistake. In its first three years of holding the league broadcast rights (2010 to 2013), viewers could watch games through online streamers for free. But having spent over $160 million (link in Chinese) to renew its broadcast contract from 2013 to 2019, the company has been gradually trying pay-per-view services, too.
Last season via streamers, viewers could watch four games per week for free and, separately, six per week on a pay-per-view basis, including on PPTV and LeTV.
For its part, last season Super Sports Media signed up 3.12 million pay-per-view subscribers, up 67% from the previous year. That was without exclusive games, of which it has 150 this season.
“As a die-hard fan of Arsenal, to watch its 38 games in the season is my rigid demand,” sports journalist Zheng Yi tells Quartz. Working for a digital publication in Shanghai, Zheng says he has bought a 69-yuan ($11) streaming package for all the season’s Arsenal games on Super Sports Media. He complains about the picture quality, but he believes the arrival of “a paying era” is an acceptable and natural development.
Much rides on whether his fellow sports fans in China agree with him.