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Last Updated: Wednesday, 26 December 2007, 22:53 GMT
Pay-TV turns off China football fans
By Michael Bristow
BBC News, Beijing

In this photo released by China's Xinhua news agency, a soccer fan poses with the trophy in Peking University in Beijing, China's capital, on Wednesday March 15, 2006.
International football is hugely popular in China

China's enthusiastic band of football fans have failed to sign up to watch the English Premier League on a new pay-per-view format.

Top-flight English matches were previously available for free on television and had a potential audience of 30 million.

But that changed when broadcaster WinTV bought the rights to broadcast Premier League games in China for three seasons, starting this year.

WinTV now admits it has managed to attract only 20,000 customers willing to pay the 588 yuan (39; $80) annual fee.

A company spokeswoman said it was proving difficult to persuade Chinese football fans to pay to watch matches that were previously free.

"We're just trying to promote this concept, the idea that people should pay for this kind of service. It will take some time," she said.

Angry fans

The broadcaster, based in southern Guangdong province, has even enlisted the help of former England national team manager Sven-Goran Eriksson.

Eriksson, who now manages Premier League team Manchester City, gives a video message on the broadcaster's website, urging fans to sign up.

It's time to say goodbye to those TV channels that provided Premier League games free of charge
Song Zheng, WinTV

"Even if you live in England and want to see matches on television you have to pay for it," he tells Chinese fans.

WinTV bought the rights to screen English Premier League matches for three years in February for a reputed $50m.

At the time company chief executive Song Zheng seemed confident he could attract enough customers to make a profit.

"It's time to say goodbye to those TV channels that provided Premier League games free of charge," he said.

"It will be difficult to change this habit in the beginning, but I believe that more and more people will choose pay-TV in the future."

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger (file photo)
You now have the largest population in the world and we would like to make them all Arsenal fans
Arsene Wenger

But it appears that convincing Chinese football fans to put their hands in their pockets is proving harder than Mr Song initially thought.

Many are angry at having to pay for something that was previously free.

Shao Shengyi, a television sports commentator and football fan, said although he could afford the subscription fee, he was refusing to pay on principle.

"You are going to need time to get some Chinese people to change their mind - and I am one of those," said Mr Shao, who works for Chinese Central Television.

But he added: "I have some friends who are so crazy about the Premier League, they have decided to just pay up."

Switching loyalties

In order to defray some of its costs, WinTV has sold the rights to broadcast matches over the internet to Chinese online media company SINA.

SINA charges an annual subscription fee of 380 yuan (26; $52).

Football fans can also pay 3.8 yuan (0.3; $0.5) for each individual match.

Despite that move, some Chinese media reports suggest that WinTV is already set to make a loss this year on its Premier League service.

Premier League clubs will also be unhappy to hear that their product has lost millions of fans in just one season.

Many have spent time and money in an attempt to extend their fan base in China by activities such as touring the country.

Arsenal are the latest English club to join the hunt for Chinese fans, launching a Chinese-language website in October.

Replica football shifts for sale in Beijing
Football paraphernalia is big business in China

In a video message played at the launch ceremony in Beijing, the club's manager, Arsene Wenger, made it clear that China's 1.3 billion stock of potential fans could not be ignored.

"You now have the largest population in the world and we would like to make them all Arsenal fans," Wenger said.

But Premier League clubs do not just have to face the problem of a smaller fan base.

Another obstacle is that rival European leagues from Italy, France and Germany are still aired for free on Chinese television.

Rowan Simons, who promotes amateur football in China, says Chinese fans show little loyalty to any particular league.

"You won't find many die-hard Premier League fans. Many have already switched to other European leagues," he says.

Those are not comforting words for England's top clubs - or WinTV.

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06 Aug 07 |  Asia-Pacific
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