Premier League demoted to CCTV's minor channel

Top News | Bloomerg 24 Jul 2020

China's state television broadcaster has relegated English Premier League from its main sports channel to one that lures fewer viewers - a sign that professional football has been ensnared by increasingly fraught Sino-British relations.

CCTV changed plans to air a match between Liverpool and Chelsea on its main sports channel, CCTV-5, yesterday, a person familiar with the decision said.

The match was moved to CCTV-5+, a high-definition channel regarded as the broadcaster's secondary sports offering.

It is not clear if CCTV-5, the main sports channel, will show the remainder of the current competition round, the person said.

The shift comes amid a deterioration of ties between the two countries in recent weeks, with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government banning telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies and opposing the new security law imposed in Hong Kong. Britain and the United States have also discussed creating a coalition of countries to counter Beijing.

Officials at CCTV did not immediately respond to requests for comment, while representatives for the British Embassy in Beijing and the Premier League declined to comment.

This is not the first time competitive sports have been embroiled in geopolitics. Last year, CCTV dropped coverage of National Basketball Association matches after a team official made comments supporting protesters in Hong Kong.

"Given what we are beginning to see here and the issues with Huawei, the unfortunate reality is that football can get caught in the crossfire," Simon Chadwick, director of Eurasian Sport at the Centre for the Eurasian Sport Industry, said.

China has accused Britain of acting as a "cat's-paw" for the Trump administration, with foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin calling on London to halt its "wrong words and actions."

While football as a sport is less popular in China compared to European and South American nations, the country is seen as a huge potential growth market, with President Xi Jinping being a noted fan of the game.

The Premier League has boosted its popularity in Asia substantially in the past few years, even staging on several occasions a preseason official tournament in Asia.

The move by CCTV, the country's main state-backed broadcaster, could impact a 2015 plan from Xi to transform China into a football superpower. That proposal previously prompted companies such as Chinese entertainment giant Dalian Wanda to pour millions of dollars into foreign clubs - before Beijing cracked down on capital outflows.

Some English clubs such as Manchester United, Southampton and West Bromwich Albion still count Chinese tycoons or firms as investors. The Fosun Group, controlled by billionaire Guo Guangchang, owns Wolverhampton Wanderers.

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