Tim Noonan in the SMP on the strange business of sport on pay-tv in Hong Kong (subscription required):
It all started a few years back when ESPN and Star Sports left Hong Kong Cable for Now TV. Cable subsequently bid for the rights to broadcast the coveted English Premier League (EPL), which was on ESPN Star at the time.
That's not strictly correct. 3 years ago Cable TV outbid ESPN/Star for the EPL rights, and following that the two channels switched to PCCW's Now Broadband TV. There had clearly been a strained relationship between the two organizations for several years - 10 years ago they shared the rights, and then Cable TV got exclusive rights and dropped ESPN, and then a couple of years later ESPN/Star got the exclusive rights and only finalized a deal for the channels to be broadcast on Cable a matter of days before the season started. So it was no surprise 3 years ago when ESPN & Star Sports switched to Now, though Cable TV did claim that they had tried to retain the channels.
You figured that once Now TV acquired the rights to the EPL, for a number reputed to be in the range of HK$1.5 billion for three years, that it would seem like everything was under one roof, what with ESPN Star, the Golf Channel and Golf Tour network also on Now, what else would you need?
I'll tell you what you need. You need a quick primer, so here we go. Yes, the EPL is on Now and since they have a number of dedicated channels they can show every single match.
What they cannot show is the half-time studio show from John Dykes and his crew on ESPN. They show parts of his pre-game show as well as a post-game highlight show much later and that's it.
If English-speaking viewers want some sort of analysis with their half-time highlight package, they are out of luck.
There's a fundamental problem here. No-one can seriously doubt that ESPN/Star have the resources to provide excellent coverage of almost any major sport (for baseball, basketball, etc. they can work with ESPN, for soccer, cricket, etc., they can work with Sky). However that coverage will be in English. Understandably, Hong Kong broadcasters want to provide their viewers with something in Cantonese.
You might ask why Now can't offer a choice of English (ESPN/Star) or Cantonese (locally produced) coverage. Good question. I suspect the problem is that to get back the huge investment they have made, PCCW need to guarantee that their sponsors and advertisers are the only ones whose names are associated with the coverage (and ESPN/Star have separate sponsors for their coverage). PCCW must be worried that given the choice a substantial number of viewers would watch John Dykes et al.
For the EPL, it is (just about) possible to separate the pre-game and post-game shows from the matches themselves, and that is what they are doing, but for other sports it wouldn't be practical (particularly if the rights are owned by Cable TV rather than PCCW).
But maybe you don't care about the EPL, perhaps your game is tennis and you were looking forward to watching next week's US Open on Star Sports, where it has been for years.
Well, forget it.
While everyone else in Asia will be watching it on Star Sports, unless you have Hong Kong Cable you won't be watching it here as they now own the rights to it to go along with the French Open.
And golfers who subscribed to the Golf Channel and Golf Tour Channel are now over par. The upcoming FedEx Cup as well as the President's Cup belong to Hong Kong Cable as well as every PGA tournament with the exception of the four majors.
So if you can get the British Open and US Open on ESPN and the Masters on Star Sports, why are you paying HK$75 a month for Now's golf package?
To watch the Scandinavian Masters? Granted, you get the PGA Championship, number four on the major scale, and the Ryder Cup every two years. But is that enough?
Probably it isn't, but if you signed-up for 18 or 24 months you can't do much about it. As far as I know, most UK subscribers are on monthly contracts and can cancel at any time, which is not the case here. If you signed up for ESPN/Star Sports (or any of the other channels) because of particularly sports events they were showing at the time, you can't know whether that they will continue to own the rights, but you will have to continue paying.
And now here comes the biggest shocker. The last Rugby World Cup had good ratings on Star Sports here in Hong Kong, particularly with the legion of expats.
Many sports pubs reported record sales during the final match between England and Australia. No wonder Star was eager to show it again in Asia and they will, everywhere except Hong Kong. The rights to that now belong to Cable TV and it has a number of aficionados, not to mention bar owners, fuming.
Cable will be getting the feed from the International Rugby Board broadcast and at this time is not sure if it includes pre-game shows or highlights packages. It's all a little unclear, and here we are less than three weeks away from the opening match.
"We plan on having a dedicated channel to show every single match, so I think our coverage will be fine," said Garmen Chan, vice-president for external affairs at Cable TV.
I'm sure you're not happy about this fragmented sports schedule. I know I'm not. But get used to it because it looks like it is here to stay.
"We will still strive to bring the best sports programming to Hong Kong," said Chan.
Ironically, because Cable TV lost the EPL they can spend the money to do this. Because Now has the EPL, they can't.
And you? Well, if you're a fan of many sports, you have lots of choice but also little choice. Get ready to spend.
Yes, indeed - there can be little doubt that sports fans are paying more now than back in the days when Cable TV was the only game in town, but for more channels and more extensive coverage.
As I've pointed out before, the total cost of subscribing to both Now's Mega Sports Pack and Cable TV's basic package is less than you would pay for Sky Sports and Setanta Sports in the UK, though if you add in the golf, NBA and cricket channels then it may be a different matter. And it's certainly all become a lot more confusing!