Payment Dispute Clouds English Premier League’s China Coverage
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2016-12-28 11:08:13

A last-minute payment by Chinese sports live-streaming company LeSports means its subscribers will still be able to watch upcoming English Premier League games — at least for another week or so. 

LeSports has been embroiled in a dispute over payment with Beijing-based Super Sports Media Inc., which holds the exclusive broadcast rights to the Premier League in China for the period of 2010 to 2019. Super Sports had previously threatened to cut the broadcast signal to LeSports unless the company coughed up the $30 million it owed in usage rights fees. 

LeSports made a partial payment of an undisclosed amount on Tuesday, but a spokesperson for Super Sports said that the sum was only enough to secure access to the Premier League games until Jan. 3. If the remaining payments were not made on schedule, the company would make good on its threat to block LeSports’ access to the games, the spokesperson added. 

“As a business partner, we hope that they can address this issue as soon as possible,” the spokesperson told Sixth Tone in a telephone interview Tuesday afternoon, before news of the latest payment broke.

LeSports live broadcasts mainly athletic programs and has a number of collaborations and partnerships with international sporting interests, including Major League Baseball. LeSports is an independent unit of LeEco, a Chinese entertainment and tech company led by billionaire chief executive Jia Yueting. 

In previous media reports, LeSports said it expected to have 3 million subscribers by the end of 2016. Yet Jia’s ambitious plans to turn what was originally a live-streaming platform into a technology powerhouse that spans smartphones, televisions, movie studios, cloud computing, and even electric cars have recently run into roadblocks. 

Earlier this month, Sixth Tone’s sister publication, The Paper, quoted comments from a press conference during which Jia acknowledged financial pressures. “Now, we intend to strengthen the operation and management capacity so that we can use our investment and expenses where we need them most,” the article cited Jia as saying. 

In October, LeSports suspended broadcasts of the Association of Tennis Professionals World Tour, also as a result of payment default.

A spokesperson from LeSports declined to comment on the payment issue but said that the company’s live broadcast of the rest of the Premier League season wouldn’t be affected, and that all subscribers would be able to watch the matches across all of the media platforms available through LeSports. The company didn’t elaborate on how this would be made possible. 

LeSports furthered its cooperation with Super Sports in August when it announced it would continue to broadcast the Premier League during the 2016-2017 season and extended the range of possible delivery methods from personal computers and mobile phones to include so-called over-the-top TV, whereby video content is delivered via the internet. 

According to the terms of the broadcasting deal between LeSports and Super Sports, LeSports had to pay the first installment of rights fees before the season started in mid-August. The remaining amount of $30 million dollars was due on Dec. 20.

Under a new agreement reached on Monday, Super Sports said it will give LeSports until the Lunar New Year holiday, which falls in late January of 2017, to pay off the balance in its entirety. 

The Premier League could not be reached for immediate comment by Sixth Tone on Tuesday.

Wu Chenpiao, 26, said she has been an avid Chelsea F.C. fan for 15 years. Wu said she received a free one-year membership to LeSports when she paid 1,000 yuan ($144) to an online car rental company. 

In fact, Wu said she regularly sees LeSports’ memberships being discounted as part of marketing promotions with other companies. An advantage of the LeSports platform is the quality of its sportscasters, said Wu, citing prominent soccer commentator Zhan Jun as an example. 

If LeSports stops broadcasting the Premier League, it won’t be the end of the world for Wu. “I can also choose to watch on other platforms, such as Super Sports or PPTV,” she said, referring to rival live-streaming platforms.

Meanwhile, Liang Shuang, who describes himself as a loyal fan of Manchester United, has already switched to another provider. “I found their [LeSports’] platform not very reliable,” said the 34-year-old from Shanghai. “Now I subscribe to Super Sports.” 

(Header image: Liu Jianhong, CCO of LeSports, talks during a press conference about the broadcasting of Premier League matches this season, Beijing, Aug. 11, 2016. Zhou Wufeng/VCG)