EPL changes Asian football television programming

The sports media landscape in Asia changed dramatically on the weekend of 11-12 August as the English Premier League dropped from the schedules of many of its last remaining major free-to-air terrestrial television broadcasters. Promoters, who'd paid the EPL most of the record £625 million it received from foreign rights for 2007-2010, began to recoup their investment. In some markets, even Pay-TV stations were churned in the search for higher returns. In others, licensees are using the EPL as Rupert Murdoch's proverbial "battering ram" to lead fans to support new Pay TV operations.

In China, the change to Pay-TV had been well announced. "It's time to say goodbye to those TV channels that provided Premier League games free of charge," said WinTV Chief Executive Song Zheng in February after successfully bidding a reported US$50 million for PRC market. Song, whose station had just 40,000 subscribers, said he was confident of winning over viewers. "I know that most Chinese people have been getting used to viewing soccer matches on free channels. 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." And yet, at kick-off for the new EPL season, subsidiary contracts with regional cable TV operators in major regions, including the largest city Shanghai, had yet to be concluded. A boon to a few companies offering live games via the internet, it was a scenario feared by some of England's biggest clubs who were reportedly "furious" that "limited Pay-TV audience may restrict the dynamic growth of English football in the world's most populous country."

In Indonesia, the change came as a shock. The week prior to the start of the EPL season, it was announced that ESPN-STAR Sports' arrangement with national FTA broadcaster Trans7 would not be continued. Trans7 said it "wouldn't be able to cover the cost of buying the rights even if we sold all the advertising spots, combined with other income from sponsors." But the hundreds of thousands of subscribers used to watching English football on the two ESS channels on established Pay-TV services Kabelvision and Indovision found they too would miss out. Paralleling the exclusive deal ESS made with Astro Supersport for the Malaysian market in 2001, Astro's brand new Indonesian subsidiary was suddenly announced as the new EPL sub-licensee for Asia's third largest nation for an undisclosed amount. "Our basic idea by bringing EPL into the country is to give Indonesian people access to watch the league," vice president for corporate affairs at PT Direct Vision's Astro Indonesia, Halim Mahfudz, confusingly told The Jakarta Post.

Last-minute brinkmanship also occurred in Japan where Pay-TV J Sports signed an exclusive three-year contract with Sportfive - after the first 10 games of the new Premiership season had been concluded. The Japan Times anticipated that fans would be forced to test the quality of internet transmissions or to watch illegal displays at pubs and bars and discovered venues would be tapping into a South African channel for their customers. This did not appear to concern the rights-holders. "The deal we agreed with J Sports represents a continuation of our excellent partnership in the past", said Sportfive executive vice president Robert Müller von Vultejus. EPL CEO Richard Scudamore praised the process. “We are very satisfied with the result of Sportfive’s distribution of our rights [and] welcome J Sports to the circle of partners of the English Premier League,” he said.

The manoeuverings show the formidable market power of the English Premier League throughout Asia but also provide a window of opportunity to competitors. The free-to-air broadcasters and non-EPL Pay-TV networks are filling their programming with other European football, notably Spanish, Italian and German and, increasingly domestic and regional competitions. But the EPL's competitors have significant weaknesses. How much better for La Liga marketing in Asia if Real Madrid and Barcelona collaborated? How much better for SerieA if it had a clean image for punters? How much better for Bundesliga if it hand-fed media with in-depth data and statistics?

As for domestic beneficiaries, the recent Asian Forum on Sports Innovation (www.asianfosi.com) had two messages on competing for fan loyalties with English and European football.

Claire Kenny Tipton, the Asian Football Confederation's Director of Marketing and Media and Communications pointed out that 61% of all football revenues in Asia goes to the English Premier League and, in South East Asia in particularly, the English Premiership is the most supported football product. She argued, however, against the proposition that the overwhelming broadcasting of European football somehow got fans involved in local football. “One of the problems in these countries, Indonesia excepted, is that fans don't go to stadiums. A generation of latent fans has been created. They've never been to a live football game. They don't play football. They don't have a passion for the game. They watch it on TV. They get together with their mates next door or in a coffee shop. They say they support Man United or Liverpool or Real Madrid but they'll buy the shirt and that’s it. That's where it begins and where it ends, “ she said.

The Asian Cup was brought to South East Asia “at great expense” so the Asian Football Confederation could say: “Malaysia, you can one day be as good as Japan if you put Malaysian football first; if you create a platform for domestic football. Same in Thailand and in Vietnam,” she said. It was easiest to attract spectators in Indonesia and Vietnam and difficult “as expected” in Malaysia and Thailand. But what was astonishing is that while the opening games of the group stages in Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok were very poorly attended, the domestic TV ratings - with RTM in Malaysia and Channel 7 in Thailand, were huge. “The Thai matches on 7 were bigger than the World Cup ratings or the European Champions League ratings or the FA Cup final ratings,” she said.

This indicates “a culture of people who demonstrate their passion for the sport by watching it on TV,” she warned. “In South East Asia the numbers attending club matches has not increased, it has decreased. The number of children playing football has not increased. If anything in certain countries it has got worse. The commercial revenue has decreased and the television coverage has virtually disappeared.” So rather than inspiring local football, the foreign broadcasting “presses it down,” she said. .

Dez Corkhill, Director of internet content at ESPN-STAR Sport spoke of football in Asia as “fabulous” product with some as “good as anywhere in the world.” Even in Malaysia, he said, the highest rating live telecast in the past year had been an ASEAN Football Championship game between Malaysia and Singapore. “It out-rated anything from Manchester United Liverpool, Arsenal or Real Madrid … So there’s a product here. There really is.” However of the top nine highest rating games, the other eight were all English Premier League. “That's the reality facing sports organisations at the grassroots level. You've got to somehow work out a way to get into our market,” he said. “We deliver sports to the fan. Whatever sport will give us our best ratings. That’s because it makes us money and we are a business.” His advice to domestic competitions is to produce a professional product, with a clear message and with strict scheduling. “People are captivated by good audio, good video and good sport. Liga Indonesia, for instance, is great but needs to be packaged better and smarter,” he said.