Sports fans face threat of TV viewing drought

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 September, 2010, 12:00am

The prospect of blank television screens is looming large for Hong Kong sports fans, as protracted contract talks between ESPN Star Sports and PCCW go down to the wire.

An exclusive six-year deal between the two companies to broadcast some of the world's biggest sporting events ended on Wednesday, and if a deal isn't struck coverage will end this week. The sides suspended cancellation of programmes to undertake 11th-hour discussions to broker a new agreement.

'This has been dragged out over the past few weeks,' an executive with detailed knowledge of the negotiations said. 'The talks have all but collapsed. It's been ongoing for weeks, but the situation is in limbo and there's been no progress. It was public knowledge that they had a six-year exclusive deal which has finished, but now they're in these talks and they're just not reaching an agreement. There are some frantic negotiations now taking place.'

If an agreement is not found it will mean a viewing drought for many armchair sports fans.

ESPN Star Sports provides a range of sports from live coverage of Formula One, cricket internationals, golf majors and tennis grand slams, to top American sports like the NBA Finals, Baseball's World Series and the Super Bowl in American football.

ESPN Star Sports would have to find another carrier for its channels to be shown in the city. If the deal with PCCW collapses, it would have to strike a deal with Cable TV or Hong Kong Broadband Network.

'At this stage our official comment is that we are committed to work in the best interest of sports fans in Hong Kong and we continue to work closely with PCCW [towards a deal],' ESPN Star Sports said.

PCCW was also tight-lipped, as the negotiations continued.

However, the executive insider said discussions were on their last legs. 'It could easily happen that they're not going to reach an agreement and that the partnership with PCCW will end,' the executive said.

'ESPN Star Sports and Star Cricket channels would no longer exist, along with other new sports packages they had hoped to open to the Hong Kong market - some of these have already been promoted in the region, like ESPN HD, ESPN 24-hour News, and ESPN Player.'

This year has been a tough one for Hong Kong fans, especially as, in November, PCCW's Now TV lost the rights to screen live English Premier League matches to Cable TV, leaving many soccer fans in the lurch.

Industry insiders said Cable TV paid more than US$200 million to obtain the rights. It had lost them to Now TV in 2007 when the broadband-television operator paid US$180 million for a three-year deal.

Cable TV winning the rights back prompted an angry response from viewers and bar owners faced with having to sign contracts with both television operators.

Bidding war

The amount Cable TV paid (in US dollars) to win rights to the English Premier League is said to be more than: $200m