ANALYSES

Premier League and PPTV: Private Finances and UK-China Politics in Football

Tribune
29 octobre 2020
By Layne Vandenberg, PhD student in the King’s College London and University of Hong Kong Joint PhD Programme


Layne Vandenberg is a PhD student in the King’s College London and University of Hong Kong Joint PhD Programme. She received her Bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan, completed a Fulbright Research Grant in Brazil and graduated from the Yenching Academy at Peking University with a Master of Laws in International Relations. Her research has focused on football (soccer) and sports policy, including the FIFA World Cup, the Olympic Games, and football reform in China.

A financial dispute between the Premier League and a contracted Chinese streaming service has sparked discussion about the role of football in politics.

On 3 September 2020, the Premier League terminated its agreement with PPTV (PP视频), a Chinese streaming service, in the first year of its three-year contract. The termination follows on the heels of financial disagreements between the Premier League and PPTV, broader China-UK political relations and speculation about the role of football in politics.

When the Premier League signed the £564m ($700m) agreement with PPTV in 2016, it was the Premier League’s largest deal outside of the UK. PPTV is owned by Suning Holdings Group, a privately-owned Chinese company, which is not new to football; in June 2016, Suning bought a 70% stake in FC Inter Milan for $307 million, the highest-profile takeover of a European team by a Chinese firm. Although it may have ended its contract with the Premier League, PPTV remains the primary platform for England’s FA Cup through 2021.

The termination follows PPTV withholding payment to the Premier League in March 2020 amidst match delays and cancellations due to the COVID-19 pandemic. On September 3, PPTV stated that disagreements about copyright value led to a valuation conflict between PPTV and the Premier League. In response, PPTV declared it had already paid – and even overpaid – the originally agreed upon cycle costs and would terminate the contract based on practical and strategic considerations.

Despite what appears to be a strictly financial dispute, the Premier League’s sudden termination of the PPTV agreement has reignited debates about the role of sport and politics, specifically in the Chinese context. From Sino-American ping pong diplomacy in the 1970s to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, China has viewed sport as a strategic asset and used international sporting competitions as a political tool. China has used sport for domestic political purposes in the past, with football recently becoming a more visible battle ground for international political clashes.

In December 2019, the PRC did not screen an Arsenal vs. Manchester City match following tweets from Arsenal’s Mesuit Özil denouncing China’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims in China’s north western province, Xinjiang. Özil, a German national with Turkish ancestry, was promptly removed from Chinese versions of the videogame FIFA and blocked on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent to Twitter. When the Premier League announced the PPTV contract termination, speculators voiced that the termination may be unofficial support for Özil’s critique. This seems unlikely given even his club, Arsenal, distanced itself from Özil’s original comments, stating on Weibo: “The content posted was entirely Özil’s personal view. As a football club, Arsenal always adheres to the principle of keeping out of politics.” Even though the international focus on China’s treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang has increased over the past year, terminating a contract with a privately-held Chinese streaming service does not direct imply a potential Premier League stance on Chinese human rights abuses.

In July 2020, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson banned new technology from Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei and condemned the PRC’s new national security law in Hong Kong. That same month, Chinese state television ‘demoted’ Premier Leagues matches from the main CCTV sports channel to CCTV-5+. Although CCTV-5+ was created specifically for the 2008 Beijing Games as a channel dedicated to sports content, it is nonetheless China’s secondary and less-watched sports platform. In the case of Liverpool’s last home match, the demotion was announced only one day before the match, solidifying speculation that China’s decision appeared to be in-kind retaliation. This specific interaction between government bodies was not generated by sport but nonetheless manifested in football; the UK product of the Premier League became a vehicle for the PRC’s response to UK criticism given its primetime slot on government-owned CCTV channels. In this case, as in most cases, politics extended itself into sport, hijacking one of the world’s most popular public platforms.

While Özil and Prime Minister Johnson instigated direct Chinese backlash, it is unclear whether the termination of the Premier League-PPTV agreement was set in motion by the Premier League’s re-valuation of the contract or by PPTV’s choice to withhold a scheduled instalment. If the former, the Premier League may have used the valuation to encourage the termination of the contract. If the latter, the Premier League’s choice to terminate the contract was more reactionary than a larger statement about Chinese human rights abuses, the situation in Hong Kong, or UK-China relations. Similarly, PPTV’s decision to withhold payment does not appear to reflect PPTV’s wider approach to international football as PPTV remains the primary streaming platform for the Bundesliga, La Liga, Serie A, and all UEFA competitions.

Even if external factors played a part in the termination decision, it is clear that the Premier League does not wish to distance itself from the Chinese market. Within two weeks of the PPTV contract termination, the Premier League struck a replacement deal with Tencent, one of China’s largest entertainment and technology companies with multiple digital platforms. This quick turnaround was not spurred by financial urgency; the immediate financial burden posed by the termination of the PPTV agreement was deferred considering PPTV had already paid half of its contract after the first year. Unlike the PPTV contract, the Tencent deal only covers one year (2020/21 season) at an undisclosed value. For the Premier League, promptly securing a Chinese streaming service denotes international football’s recognition of its large Chinese fanbase and the importance of the Chinese market. For Tencent, gaining temporary rights to the Premier League will contribute to its already hefty sports portfolio, which includes a $1.5b contract with the National Basketball Association (NBA) in the US.

The official rationale behind the termination remains unconfirmed; however, it has nonetheless illuminated that discussions about sport, and particularly football, are laden with broader implications. The reality remains that financial interests lay at the core of the Premier League-PPTV agreement termination, with any higher purpose relegated to the pockets of two privately-owned entities.

 

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This article belongs to the GeoSport platform, developed by IRIS and EM Lyon
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