Plenty of quality viewing if you can see through the smoke of battle

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 August, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 17 August, 2001, 12:00am

The Premier League is back with us on a major channel in Hong Kong, starting tomorrow with the live match from Upton Park, Liverpool v West Ham. The fact that it is now on ESPN, rather than Cable Sports, should be immaterial to most fans. That simple change of channel hides a summer of scare stories that reflect badly on all concerned, but more of that later.

For now we have a lot of matches to look forward as the league gets off to its usual busy start. Manchester United fans are well served with their home match against Jean Tigana's intriguing Fulham. And on Wednesday night United are at Blackburn. Two games against newly promoted sides looks like a gentle entry to the new campaign for the champions. They looked in pretty good shape last week in the Charity Shield loss to Liverpool (seen live on TVB Pearl).

Chelsea take on Newcastle on Sunday and the match of the week should be Tuesday night's game from Highbury when Arsenal host Leeds. Both sides are fancied to be among the pack snapping at Manchester United's heels and neither will want to be dropping points at this early stage of the season.

This is a first chance for Gooners to see Arsene Wenger's array of new players, including centre half Sol Campbell from arch-rivals Tottenham, Dutch midfielder Giovanni van Bronckhorst from Rangers, Forward Francis Jeffers from Everton and Japanese midfielder Junichi Inamoto from Gamba Osaka.

The package that brought ESPN back to I-Cable also includes STAR Sports. This version of STAR Sports will differ from the one available on satellite. The main difference is that the STAR Sports carried on I-Cable will include live Premier League matches. This channel will differ slightly from the STAR Sports carried by satellite in that the CABLE version will have occasional live Premier League matches, too. This week for instance STAR Sports (CABLE) will have Middlesbrough v Arsenal and Everton v Tottenham both live.

STAR Sports satellite are getting in on the action but in a peculiar way - they are showing matches from recent past seasons.

The whole issue of television rights leaves a sour taste. To recap, towards the end of last season ESPN threw the cat among the pigeons by announcing they had gained exclusive rights to showing the English championship. This immediately set alarm bells ringing for anyone familiar with the Champions' League farrago of the past two years. That was when ESPN, which had up to then been carried by local Cable Sports (a channel of I-Cable), failed to come to terms on a new contract with the cable company. In a frustrating standoff that lasted nearly two years, most viewers in HK were denied access to ESPN while the two companies eyeballed each other. But after ESPN's loudly trumpeted recent acquisition of the Premier League the stakes became higher.

As the game of brinkmanship went on through the summer, the rumour mill got into top gear. Among the more plausible stories was one that ESPN would allow STAR Sports, it's partner in Asia, to carry Premier League matches in Hong Kong. But they could have made the same arrangement over the Champions' league and failed to so why should this case be any different? The rumour was stoked by an infuriating series of promo ads on STAR which showed a montage of anguished players and fans from Premiership matches and the tag line warning viewers not to be disappointed because there were only seven weeks to go to the new season, counting down each week.

By the time the countdown reached two weeks to go, the sense of frustration was near boiling point among the tens of thousands of HK viewers who were more than willing to watch the Premiership but didn't know if they would have access. The 11th-hour compromise that brought ESPN back to I-Cable was a great relief but we should not have had to endure all the intervening confusion.

What seems clear is that ESPN's sole motivation is the bottom line. Even when there clearly was only one company (I-Cable) likely to be able to buy their product the ESPN people refused because the money offered wasn't enough. Basically, rather than sell to the only viable buyer at a price below their own valuation, they preferred to get nothing from anybody. And stuff the fans.