ESPN partners with Tencent to Broadcast US Sports to China

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by Janny Jang
The Duke Devils and the U-23 Chinese national team playing a friendship game in 2011. This was the first summer exhibition game between a US college basketball team and an international opponent to be televised by ESPN. Image: Michael Wa via Flickr.

The recent deal between ESPN and Tencent signifies a partnering between two of the world’s largest technology companies and sports media groups. ESPN will expand its global business by providing content to Tencent, which will aspire to set benchmarks for the Chinese sports media sector. ESPN will gain a significant digital presence in China by partnering with Tencent, the largest internet portal in China with 859.7 million monthly active accounts and a brand value of $76.5 billion. Although the financial terms of the arrangement were not disclosed, the deal will further the global growth of ESPN as it sees falling cable subscriptions at home in the US. ESPN saw a drop in revenue ($650 million less in affiliate revenues since 2013) and mass layoffs following the decrease of 7% in subscribers within the past two years due to the rise of alternative media platforms. The move to expand into the Chinese market follows another recent collaboration between Sony and ESPN in India.

In the ESPN-Tencent partnership, Tencent will pay ESPN for content and will help ESPN establish its digital presence in China. The digital license provides Tencent the rights to live stream exclusive and localized sports content provided by ESPN, including on-site analysis of NBA playoffs in Mandarin. It will be the first time that Chinese-language analysis will be live during the playoffs. There will also be a weekly NBA opinion and debate program. ESPN will have its own branded section in QQ Sports, the leading Chinese online sports portal, and WeChat, potentially reaching 815 million and 650 million monthly active users, respectively.

Although the deal between Tencent and ESPN includes coverage of a wide range of sports, basketball is by far the most popular in China. There are an estimated 300 million people who play basketball and the NBA fan base is 450 million. As the most popular sports league in China, the NBA has helped basketball overtake soccer as the most watched sport in the country. The deal also includes exclusive coverage of NCAA Basketball Tournament and over 100 regular season college basketball games.

 In efforts to gain a large fan base for US college basketball, the NCAA now hosts a regular-season game in China. The presence of 15 Chinese players in the NCAA league could also help increase followers and viewers. The Globalization Initiative sends US college sports teams and coaches to China for exhibitions and clinics in partnership with the Federation of University Sports China. The increasing effort to promote college basketball fosters cultural exchange through athletics.

Janny Jang is a Research Intern at the East-West Center in Washington and a student at American University.