BEIJING/SHANGHAI: Suning Retail Group is betting up to $2bn on TV rights to show soccer from around the world in China, in a move that could deliver the company a near monopoly on the growing sport at home.

Suning, a retail conglomerate with around US$22bn of annual revenue, owns Italian club Inter Milan, and is buying rights to air matches from Europe’s top leagues in China on its PPTV platform, according to a Reuters report.

The electronics retailer has, this year, agreed to pay US$700m for three years of English Premier League rights from 2019 onward, and US$250m for five years of Germany’s Bundesliga, a company source said.

In addition, it is looking to buy rights to Italy’s Serie A and Asian soccer, three people familiar with the plans told the news agency.

The company already owns the rights to Spain’s La Liga and the Chinese Super League, for which it offered a sum far larger than the nearest rival’s offer.

It is well known that President Xi Jingping is fond of the sport, stating his ambition to turn China into a “football powerhouse” by 2050, and firing the starting gun on heavy spending in the sport. 

Last year, Chinese Super League clubs spent US$451.3m in transfer fees, contributing to a total potential value for the Chinese domestic sporting market of around US$740bn by 2025.

A foothold in the streaming market could open access to some of that cash, provided Suning and PPTV can fend off competition from Sina Sports and WeChat owner Tencent.

However, the challenges to growing viewership in the Chinese market are many. Piracy is widespread and the time difference between China and Europe mean live viewing is often a nocturnal option. Reuters spoke to a 21-year-old fan from Bejing, Ding Li, who shared the widely held view that fans will pay only “when [they] really can't find free or pirated” streams.

Li added that he had no plans to buy a subscription. "I like flexibility and most games can be found on pirate stream websites".

Meanwhile, the strict rules on foreign signings to the domestic league hinder much of the celebrity potential that the clubs hoped to acquire.

Data sourced from Reuters, Financial Times; additional content by WARC staff