BEIJING: Football in China is set to follow the route pioneered by the English Premier League, with a fivefold increase in the value of TV broadcasting rights following on recent investment in top clubs by several of the nation's business tycoons.
The previous rights owner, state-owned broadcaster China Central Television, was paying RMB 50m a year, but China Media Capital, a private equity business founded by Li Ruigang, has upped the stakes by spending RMB 8bn ($1.3bn) for a five-year deal to show the Chinese Super League.
"Compared with international sports properties like the English Premier League, the National Basketball Association [in the US] and La Liga [in Spain], it is still small," Mr Li told the Financial Times. "But the value of local sports leagues has not been fully discovered."
His belief is that local fans will pay to watch games and that mobile broadcasting is "the best solution for the paid model". He noted that Chinese viewers have been reluctant to pay for premium content but said that younger consumers were prepared to do so if it meant a "good user experience".
While China is not a world power in football terms – it ranks 79th globally – the sport is enormously popular there and accounted for half of all the sports games broadcast on China Central Television in 2013, making it a potentially powerful marketing tool.
President Xi Jinping is also a fan, which adds another layer of meaning to a rush to invest in the sport as businessmen seek to build government relations.
Before his recent visit to the UK, Xi told Reuters: "My greatest expectation for Chinese football is for the Chinese team to be one of the best in the world and for football to play an important role in making people stronger in body and mind.
"We will pursue the goals of strengthening football training for the youth, reforming the professional football system, enhancing international cooperation and boosting the football industry."
Such political backing was no doubt a factor in Alibaba's thinking last year when the internet giant spent $192m for a half share in one of China's top clubs, Guangzhou Evergrande.
Data sourced from Financial Times, Reuters; additional content by Warc staff