Fans will have to pay to see favorite teams

BEIJING — For the 30 million fans of English soccer in China, news of the end of cheap access to the top British league was as welcome as a red card.

Beginning in late August, Chinese fans of the English Premier League will have to cough up a hefty $24 a month to watch Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United in action next season, after Tiansheng TV, a station run by state-owned Guangdong Provincial Television, secured the broadcasting rights for three years.

The news marks another setback for Rupert Murdoch’s ambitions in the Chinese market — China’s Premier League addicts had been able to watch games live on ESPN-Star, a joint venture of Walt Disney Co. and News Corp., via a local cable TV broadcasting service, at a much lower monthly cost.

Tiansheng TV beat out pubcaster China Central Television and ESPN to win the rights for a reported $50 million.

“The fans will have to endure the pain of the change. Let’s say goodbye to cheap Premier League,” says Tiansheng TV prexy Song Zheng.

Tiansheng’s Win TV has just 40,000 subscribers at the moment, but the pubcaster is confident of gaining a legion of fans for English football. It also will provide coverage on cell phones and online along with live TV.

Chelsea and Manchester United have targeted China as a major potential growth market — Chelsea recently opened a Mandarin Chinese Web site, while Manchester United had a high-profile preseason tour of China two years ago.

Tiansheng will relay a big range of European soccer matches, including the Premier League, Italy’s Serie A, Spain’s La Liga and Germany’s Bundesliga. The network also covers league matches in Japan and South Korea.

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