Enjoy the wide choice of TV action - but it ain't gonna last

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 April, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 26 April, 2004, 12:00am

We are in the midst of the golden age of televised sports here in Hong Kong. Seriously, we get virtually everything. I don't mean every single game in every sport. I mean virtually every single meaningful game in every sport is now offered.

Some, like the NHL and college basketball, are available on a pay-per-view basis. But the point is they are available.

Well, sorry, but the golden age of televised sports in Hong Kong is about to end.

Once again, Hong Kong Cable and ESPN Star Sports will be parting ways in a less than amicable fashion. Oh, all the relevant parties are denying it in a most political way. But trust me, it's a done deal and has been a done deal for longer than you think. Why else would Hong Kong Cable go out and bid on the exclusive rights to broadcast the English Premier League (EPL) here?

The EPL has an exclusive deal with ESPN to broadcast the highly coveted games throughout Southeast Asia. The deal is up this year. Hong Kong Cable, figuring all it really needed was the EPL, was anxious to get out of paying to show things like baseball and Formula One so they approached the EPL and made them an offer they couldn't refuse.

'Whether we continue or not with ESPN Star Sports is still subject to negotiations,' said Garmen Chan, vice president of external affairs at Hong Kong Cable. 'Nothing is official yet.'

Nothing? So Hong Kong Cable went out and paid a ridiculous amount, and I mean a ridiculous amount, for the local exclusive rights to the EPL only to re-sign ESPN and in essence pay twice for the rights?

Okay, you're free to believe that. But me, I know what done looks like and this is a done deal. Fans here of the EPL are up in arms because they figure wherever ESPN shows up, not only will it's EPL games be blacked out, so will the very popular EPL shows hosted by former Hong Kong resident John Dykes.

'It's a big problem,' said Dykes, from the ESPN studio in Singapore. 'I was 14 years in Hong Kong, from the early days when Robin Parke and Brian Langley did studio shows. There were some truly amazing times, we had rats running across the sports set on ATV and I remember the ugly pink blazers they made some of the presenters wear.'

Dykes is the host of the pre-game and post-game weekend EPL show as well as the Football Focus highlight show. In three years, the shows have grown in substance as well as popularity and today are easily the best produced and most popular of any studio show in the ESPN Star Sports stable.

'We sank considerable resources and time into the shows and we decided to focus on analysis as opposed to some flashy, noisy thing,' said Dykes. 'And it's not just expats who have replied favourably. We have received a number of positive replies from local football fans in Hong Kong as well.'

Wherever ESPN Star resurfaces here, and industry sources say it is likely to be NOW Broadband TV, Dykes is hopeful that they will be able to at least broadcast Football Focus. But forget it. Hong Kong Cable owns exclusive rights to even the highlights and there is no way they will let anyone else use them.

What it means is that we will be treated to the same sort of studio shows that we had to endure for the past World Cup. Idiotic, sophomoric and annoying. There will be a studio full of people banging noise makers and blowing whistles and there will be a slew of knuckle heads who have little knowledge of the game inciting them on. These shows are the reason God created the mute button.

'You have to give us a chance,' said Chan. 'We have some knowledgeable people.'

Sorry Garmen, I couldn't disagree more. Dykes and crew feature a number of analysts who have played and coached in the EPL. Hong Kong has produced how many world-class footballers? Cue the noise makers and whistles, cue the knuckleheads in the Arsenal and United sweaters and cue the cute girls standing around looking lost.

ESPN's choices have often been dubious. They show more hours of soccer than the human eye can process and this past week passed up a chance to show Yao Ming versus Shaquille O'Neal in a playoff clash for more EPL replays.

Still, the most troubling development is that viewers, not to mention bar owners, will be forced to make a choice.

'A sports fan can't just live on football,' said Niall Richardson, manager of Champs Bar in Wan Chai.

'We fill the bar with hockey and baseball games two or three nights a week as well. But as a sports bar, we will have to subscribe to both services now so it's going to cost us more.'

There is too much blame to pass around here. But if you are looking for good guys or bad guys, forget it. There are only business guys. It's definitely a drag but it's nothing personal.

It's simply Hong Kong.


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