China state TV demotes English soccer amid UK spat

China's state broadcaster CCTV did not air an EPL match between Liverpool and Chelsea on its main sports channel. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) - China's state television broadcaster is relegating English Premier League football matches from its main sports channel to one that lures fewer viewers, a sign the lucrative world of professional soccer is being ensnared in the increasingly fraught relations between Beijing and the UK.

CCTV, which has the rights to broadcast Premier League matches in China, didn't air a match between Liverpool FC and Chelsea FC on its main sports channel, CCTV-5, as planned early Thursday morning (July 23), said a person familiar with the decision.

The match was shifted to CCTV-5+, a high definition channel regarded as the broadcaster's secondary sports offering, the person said, asking not to be identified discussing internal matters.

It's not clear if the main sports channel, CCTV-5, will show the remainder of the current competition round, the person said. There is one final round of matches remaining in the Premier League season, slated to be played this weekend.

Scheduling on the broadcaster's main website shows a match between Leicester City FC and Manchester United will be shown on the HD channel Sunday local time, but the game isn't listed in the programming for the main CCTV-5 channel.

The shift comes amid a deterioration of ties between the two countries in recent weeks, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government banning telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies and opposing the new security law imposed in Hong Kong.

The UK and the US - which has also been taking a more confrontational stance with China - have discussed creating a coalition of countries to counter Beijing.

Officials at CCTV and China's foreign ministry didn't immediately respond to requests for comment, while a representative for the British Embassy in Beijing declined to comment. The move didn't appear to affect streaming platforms, with the Liverpool-Chelsea match aired on Chinese video app PPTV.

This wouldn't be 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 pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.

CCTV's action "is symbolic of what else could come following decisions around Hong Kong and Huawei," said Mr Mark Tanner, founder of Shanghai-based research and marketing firm China Skinny.

Tensions between the UK and China have been building for a while, with the future of Hong Kong - a former British colony - being the main flash point.

The Hong Kong security law, which includes life sentences for crimes such as separatism or subversion, has snuffed out almost all mass protests and is threatening safeguards and freedoms that the city was guaranteed at least until 2047 as part of the handover agreement.

The UK has banned arms sales to Hong Kong, suspended its extradition treaty with the city and invited as many as three million Hong Kongers to apply for citizenship in the UK. China has accused the UK of acting as a "catspaw" for the Trump administration and foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told reporters this week that London should halt its "wrong words and actions."

Relations between the US and China worsened this week, with President Donald Trump's administration on Wednesday ordering the closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston, marking a new low in their ties. Beijing has threatened to retaliate.

While soccer as a sport isn't as developed in China as it is in many European or South American nations, the country is seen as a huge potential growth market, with President Xi Jinping a notable fan of the game.

Some of the top teams in England, such as Manchester United, have millions of fans in China and operate fan shops there. The Premier League has boosted its popularity in Asia substantially in the past few years, even staging on several occasions a pre-season official tournament in Asia. Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur travelled to Shanghai for an exhibition game last year.

In the past, Britain has also used soccer as a tool for diplomacy, treating Mr Xi to a Manchester City visit that culminated in a selfie photo with player Sergio Aguero flanked by Mr Xi and the then Prime Minister David Cameron.

The move by CCTV, the country's main state-backed broadcaster, could impact a 2015 plan from Mr Xi to transform China into a soccer superpower. That proposal had prompted companies such as Chinese entertainment giant Dalian Wanda Group Co to pour millions of dollars into foreign clubs - a trend that has abated following a crackdown by Beijing on capital outflows.

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

In the controversy involving the NBA, the later-deleted tweet by Houston Rockets' general manager Daryl Morey supporting Hong Kong protesters triggered a backlash from Chinese companies and fans. Local sponsors withdrew their backing for the NBA, while Commissioner Adam Silver defended Mr Morey's right to free speech. CCTV still doesn't air NBA games in China.

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