Ball Watching

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 September, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 September, 2000, 12:00am

After an exciting burst of live World Cup qualifying action last week, we're plunging back in to the waters of the European Champions' League (ECL) this week, with two great live matches, one featuring holders Real Madrid, the other the world's favourite club, Manchester United.

Ah, but hold on, we can't watch either Real's Iberian awayday at Sporting Lisbon nor United's hosting of Anderlecht because, unlike most of the rest of Asia, Hong Kong is still an ESPN - free zone. And ESPN hold the ECL rights in the region.

This unacceptable state of affairs has existed since the latter stages of last season's ECL when Wharf Cable's contract to carry ESPN was due to expire and the two parties let down the viewership by failing to come to an accommodation.

ESPN, surely with an eye on the imminent Pay-TV boom in Hong Kong, wanted a longer term deal and quoted CABLE a price that the latter found unacceptable.

Whether or not ESPN priced themselves out of CABLE's range knowing a bigger payday would be around the corner is for cynics to speculate on. But the upshot was that CABLE balked and neither party could come to a short-term arrangement.

It was left to local terrestrial channel ATV to come to the rescue and show the Champions' League final live. And HKT's Interactive TV managed a strange deal to show the first leg of the Valencia v Barcelona semi-final, non-live but repeatedly for a month. It was all a big fudge and a terrible way to treat the world's best club competition.

But this situation will not last forever. We are promised a pay-TV revolution in Hong Kong and it can't come soon enough. In July five companies were awarded licences to launch between 10 and 65 channels each, the first of which should be coming on line by the New Year. Not all the licensees will be allowed to have 65 channels but between them they are expected to introduce 149 new channels by the end of 2001.

Obviously not all of these can be dedicated international sports channels, let alone exclusive soccer ones. But amidst the requirements to satisfy other demands for entertainment, documentaries and news one would not be too optimistic to expect three or four such channels - and one of those would have to be ESPN.

Some of the licensees have already sounded warnings about lacking the budgets to compete for the top-end sporting rights. But at least one, the STAR TV-owned Hong Kong DTV, is promising to pursue the well-worn Rupert Murdoch line of buying up rights to major sports events.

CABLE Sports, the leading soccer provider in the SAR for the past four years, will be in a firefight for the football following-audience. When that happens then the depth of your pockets should be the only obstacle to unlimited access to all the soccer you want from England, Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Brazil, Argentina etc. That's not to mention the sore points of the Cham-pions' League and UEFA Cup.