WHILE sports people are competing on court, field or track, Hongkong's television stations are engaged in a race of their own. Sports programming, once a low priority item because there is not the same sporting tradition in Asia as there is in Europe and the United States, is seen as being worthwhile: the prospects of slim profits and an enhanced reputation are prompting ATV, TVB and STAR TV to compete for the best events. ''Competition between the stations means the distributors are playing one station against the next so they can get the most money for their product,'' said Mr Richard Read, TVB's international affairs manager. ''In the end the only two winners are the distributor and the viewer.'' But the viewer is not always the winner. During the Australian Open, distributors tried to get ATV to outbid TVB Pearl for the rights to the show, but when ATV refused and the rights were offered to TVB, the tournament was already four days under way. On such short notice TVB could not change its schedule to accommodate the tennis so Hongkong viewers without satellite channels missed the event. For major events such as the Olympics, stations share the rights, but these popular, multi-match spectacles can withstand the exposure and still be profitable for all the stations. Other events, such as the World Cup Rugby, the Superbowl or Wimbledon, are not profit makers and are seen as prestige events to enhance the image of the station. TVB, which had strong sports coverage in the 1980s, is thinking about cutting out events such as the Superbowl (which had no sponsorship this year and so ran commercial free) because advertisers are difficult to find. With 70 per cent of its viewers being Chinese, European and North American sports are not popular programmes. ''The Chinese audience is simply not that interested so some of our programmes are just a community service,'' Mr Read said. ''For example, tennis won't sell unless Michael Chang reaches the finals, so what is the point of broadcasting a prime-time eventfor six per cent of our viewers?'' But local events such as the Pacific Bank Tennis Challenge and the Asian Games have proved to be successful for TVB. ATV, which has exclusive coverage of the Rugby Sevens tournament, Wimbledon and the FA Cup, has had to generate interest. For the FA Cup broadcasts, the Chinese-language Home has invited teenagers to come to the studio to compete in soccer skills games with local soccer and film star K. K. Cheung. ''We want to find ways to promote the sport to get people interested in the FA Cup,'' said Mr Jermyn Lynn, assistant programme controller at ATV. Coverage of the FA Cup will be supplemented on ATV Home by nightly five-minute spots called The Road to Wembley with highlights of matches and background about the teams, while the English channel will air a British produced one-hour special, also calledThe Road to Wembley, on March 12. A sure bet for ATV is the Rugby Sevens which will be aired live in Hongkong and carried in New Zealand, England, South Africa and Australia. The station has extended its deal with the BBC to do all the production of the event until 1995. But Mr Lynn is hoping new programmes such as the Women's Volleyball Grand Prix, where the world's six top teams compete in six Asian countries, will be hits. STAR TV's Prime Sports, with its 24-hour programming, faces a different challenge: its sports coverage must appeal to a regional audience. ''Since we are looking at people from Pakistan to Taiwan we always have to look for the right balance,'' said Mr Michael Richter, programme marketing manager for Prime Sports. ''We try to show full matches, like a whole day cricket test, while weekly shows like Transworld Sports bring together a whole range of events to our audience.'' STAR TV's sister company Media Assets is trying to increase the popularity of sports programming by acquiring the rights for Association of Tennis Professionals tournaments in Jakarta, Beijing and Kuala Lumpur, as well as sponsoring tennis events for local juniors. But with the company recently asserting sports is ''last on the list'' of priorities, there seems to be no major move to make sports programming anything near to what it is in Europe or North America.