Premier League ratings are falling in England and the United States! The live sports rights bubble is bursting! The first of these is definitely true, and the second I believe to be true, but nonetheless Chinese streaming video company PPTV shelled out $700 million for Premier League TV rights, according to the Associated Press. The three-year deal represents a ten-fold increase in value compared to the current deal, and is the Premier League’s largest overseas deal by annual value. For comparison, NBC Sports paid $1 billion for six years of American broadcast rights.
At varying times over the past two decades, American, Russian, and Qatari tycoons, companies, and governments have invested heavily in soccer. They’ve bought historic teams, slapped together sponsorship deals for shirts and stadiums, won the right to host the World Cup, and paid to import stars to their domestic leagues.
Now it’s China’s turn. Chinese investors own Aston Villa and West Brom, a majority stake in Inter Milan, and significant minority stakes in Manchester City and Atletico Madrid. The Chinese Super League is paying outrageous transfer fees and salaries for stars. Chinese companies are the shirt sponsors for Tottenham and Watford, and they are on pitch-side advertising boards across Europe. They want FIFA bidding rules amended so they can go after the 2026 World Cup. La Liga changed some kick-off times to satisfy the Chinese market. And now television rights are being sold for outrageous sums.
Chinese firms and investors are investing in soccer for the same reasons as everybody else: prestige and access. But there’s also a government mandate involved. Last year the Chinese government released a 50-point plan to rapidly improve its standing in world soccer, envisioning it as a “foundation for happiness in modern society.” The plan radically changed the workings of soccer federations within China, and unleashed the tidal wave of cash now chasing after foreign stars.
So for Chinese tycoons and companies, investing in European football makes plenty of sense. They expose their brands to worldwide audiences, while aligning their business interests with the policies of China’s president, currying favor with a government that still wields tremendous control over the country’s economy. The result is a further globalization of the sport, as powerful economic forces shape it in unpredictable ways.