For the first time in 16 years, Hong Kong's soccer fans will be able to see the important games of the World Cup tournament free of charge. TVB's winning of the broadcasting rights and its decision to show 22 of the 64 games, the opener, both semi-finals and final among them, on its free-to-air channels, is a sure-fire crowd-pleaser. Avid soccer fans would like to see each and every goal without having to pay, as they did in 1998. But the broadcaster claims it is financially constrained. Although not the perfect outcome, it is at least an improvement.
The rights to show the tournament are not cheap. TVB says that it will spend about HK$400 million. Even accounting for revenue from advertising and the showing of the vast majority of the games on its pay channel, it contends it will still make a loss. It was because of such outlays that the winning bidder to televise the last three World Cups, the pay broadcaster Cable TV, guarded its acquisition. Only under pressure did it agree to let free stations show four of the last tournament's matches live, and even then they had to use its commentary and advertising.
For a sport so closely associated with the everyday worker, such restrictions are not ideal. Common interest should be as important a consideration as commercial gain. Given the bidding process, the costs involved and the relatively small market, such discussion inevitably turns to whether there should be government subsidies. It is a debate that authorities have always shied away from in the name of letting the market decide, but future circumstances may yet force involvement.
There are suggestions that politics is at play. TVB objects to new free-to-air licences, Cable TV's among them - an issue now before the Executive Council. But whether concessions have been made to sway favour should not come into play. There is no bigger spectator sport for Hongkongers than soccer, nor as widely followed an international event as the World Cup. Fans will be able to get a measure of satisfaction when matches start in Brazil in June next year. But steps have to be taken to ensure that as many games as possible can be watched free of charge.