THE TERMINATION BY England’s elite football league, the Premiership, of its broadcast rights deal in China potentially gives another kick to the already bruised relationship with Europe.
The cause of the cancellation of the three-season £564 million ($700 million) contract is said to be streaming service PPTV withholding a £160 million payment that was due in March. PPTV is owned by retail billionaire Zhang Jindong’s Suning Holdings.
With the suspension of the Premier League because of Covid-19, there were no games to stream. Negotiations between the two sides over a rebate and revised terms for the coming season, which will start next week behind closed doors, have come to nothing so far but reportedly are not entirely dead.
The cancellation could be a negotiating ploy, but Suning’s talk of a ‘strategic adjustment‘ does not suggest the door is open too far. Nonetheless, the cancellation will take a bite out of the £4.2 billion the League has sold the overseas rights to its games last season, this and next.
The dispute appears to be contractural. However, but politics is never far from sport. The NBA, the globally expanding dominant professional basketball league in the United States, got a sharp lesson in that last year when its games were temporarily taken off-air in China following a tweet supporting Hong Kong protestors by an official of one of its teams.
Last December, what looked like an organised social media campaign called for one of the Premier League’s top teams, Arsenal, to fire one of their star players, Mesut Ozil for being critical of Beijing’s treatment of his fellow Muslims.
Relations between the United Kingdom and China have since taken a turn for the worse over Hong Kong and after the U-turn by the UK government excluded Huawei from its 5G network.
The cancellation also came as Foreign Minister Wang Yi concluded a five-nation bridge-building visit to Europe ahead of the China-EU summit on September 14. The trip did not go as well. It highlighted that the distances between Europe and China on issues such as Huawei, human rights, Hong Kong and Taiwan remain enormous.
Wang’s warning in Norway that awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to any Hong Kong protesters would be taken as interference in China’s internal affairs particularly didn’t go down well, kindling memories of the years-long rift caused by awarding of the 2010 prize to the late activist Liu Xiaobo.
Nor did his threat that president of the Czech Senate, Milos Vystrcil, would ‘pay a heavy price’ for leading a delegation to Taiwan. This earned Wang an sharp rebuke from Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, that was supported by several of his EU colleagues. Such tough talk, even if couched in diplomatic niceties, marks a turn for the Europeans.
None of that, however, undermines Beijing’s need for better relations with Europe as insurance against a US-European coalition against it — or the Premier League’s need to serve one of its biggest markets.