The identity of the Hong Kong company that grabbed mainland rights to air the World Cup finals remains a mystery, with local broadcasters vigorously denying involvement. Asia Television (ATV), Television Broadcasts (TVB) and cable television operator I-Cable Communications denied snatching the rights from under the nose of Chinese Central Television (CCTV). ESPN International, Tom.com and regional broadcasters Star TV and Phoenix TV also said they were not the culprits. Hundreds of millions of Chinese soccer fans may not be able to watch next year's World Cup on CCTV, the national broadcaster, with the weekend revelation that German company Kirch, which had the global rights to screen the tournament, reportedly sold the China distribution rights to a Hong Kong business for US$12 million. No official announcement has been made by the companies involved. On Friday, the chairman of the Hong Kong company told Xinhua it would sign the deal that night, but the chairman said he had not decided whether it would sell rights to major matches to CCTV. The Kirch official dealing with the China market, Nick Schrader, was not available for comment. Another Kirch official said the company would make an announcement only after it had completed selling broadcasting rights to each market. News of the sale was reported in Guangdong's 21st Century Business Herald, which said a Hong Kong company had won the rights. Industry experts cast doubt on the news because by law CCTV is the only possible distributor of the material in the mainland. Shanghai-based Zenith Media China acts as an agent for advertising companies and vice-president Steven Chang said: 'It is hard to believe.' In the past, he said, many companies had claimed to have the rights to broadcast important sports events but had failed to come through with the goods. 'Some of them had even shown us the advertising plans, but they failed to show the document that certifies their broadcasting rights over these sports events,' he said. 'CCTV usually announces the rights and advertising packages at the very last minute. 'They have told us the market plan would be launched in March next year . . . but we have approached them for more details.' He said that, even with last month's national games in Guangzhou, the centre of much attention in the domestic market, CCTV had held back the advertising package until July and August. However, some industry experts said Kirch might sell the rights for commercial reasons without taking into account the overall environment. 'Because it is open bidding, so everyone can go for it,' an ESPN official said. 'But whoever gained the broadcast rights will have to sell to CCTV eventually, because no-one else is allowed to broadcast World Cup finals in China,' an ESPN official said. Industry experts said the successful buyer would be required to sell re-broadcast rights to dominant broadcasters with their wide coverage.