SINGAPORE — China’s growing appetite for sports programming and factors such as the Beijing 2008 Olympics mean that sports are now one of the key channel drivers in the country’s pay TV development.
Non-political programming and sports have been at the center of state media’s international programming strategy since the early 1980s.
But the recent international success of athletes including National Basketball Assn. star Yao Ming, who plays for the Houston Rockets, and English Premier League soccer’s Sun Jihai, who turns out for Manchester City, is attracting wider Chinese audiences and more advertisers.
Hass Aminian, Asia Pacific prexy at sports marketing consultancy Red Mandarin, says China is also an attractive new market for established sports looking to extend their worldwide influence, such as Formula One motor racing and Moto Grand Prix motorbike racing.
“New facilities and venues are in construction — the largest in the world,” says Aminian, “A purpose-built MotoGP track near the Great Wall of China will hold 500,000 spectators. The first Chinese Formula One Grand Prix will take place in Shanghai in September at a purpose-built $240 million track.”
But according to Rowan Simons, director of OMI, who has been working with China’s sports media since the late 1980s, competition in the TV market is limited.
“National State broadcaster CCTV and the regional group of channels led by Beijing TV, Shanghai TV and Guangdong TV dominate international sports acquisitions, while advertising on their sports channels is also tightly controlled by just two agencies, Weilai and Yuantai,” he says.
Asian pan-regional sports broadcaster ESPN Star Sports is still limited to program block agreements with regional sports channels — but is one of the few foreign players to have a coveted license for cable distribution.
“There are two types of license — one to syndicate programming, the other (more lucrative) is for distribution on cable,” says ESPN Star Sports managing director Rik Dovey. “We have the latter, and in 12 years have been getting paid for our programming rather than just giving it away for brand exposure.”
With Olympic, World Cup soccer and NBA rights sold direct into the market, ESPN Star Sports’ slate is dominated by the popular English Premier League soccer series that it recently repurchased for China along with English FA Cup soccer.
“The 2000 Sydney Olympics and the soccer World Cup in 2002 were a watershed for sports’ viewing in China,” says Dovey, adding that it helped that both were in China’s time zone. “There are just more people watching sports, and now we have the ratings figures to back up what we have known all along — sports, is not niche content, but a TV driver,” he says.
With 20 key Chinese cities measured by independent ratings agencies, the 50/50 ESPN/News Corp. joint venture has syndicated figures. And recent sports and media surveys conducted by TNS Sport show an increasing general interest in sports that will benefit the current players as well as Olympic-centric companies like Eurosport that are exploring the market.
According to Dovey, local advertisers on the channel for China were up 100% on March 2003, with the split around 50:50 between local an international advertisers.
Dovey adds that advertiser interest has been spurred by an improvement in sports programming across the board. “China’s State Administration for Film & Television (Sarft) is allowing foreign investment in media through joint venture programming,” he says, confirming that ESPN Star Sports planned such an arrangement, but refused to reveal more details.
Plans are still pending for Sarft to sanction wider pay TV availability, with a possible 30 million homes by end 2005 described as “a good start” by Dovey. “But there is still a lack of content to drive pay TV as a concept,” he says, “hence the importance of foreign investment and joint ventures with local players.”