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How ESPN Plans to Conquer China

Miami Heat v Denver NuggetsMiami Heat v Denver Nuggets
A camera man for ESPN prepares for a match-up between the Miami Heat and the Denver Nuggets.Photograph by Doug Pensinger—Getty Images

ESPN has announced a major strategic partnership that it says will help the sports network “establish its most significant digital presence ever in China.”

The new deal with Chinese Internet giant Tencent will allow ESPN to populate Tencent’s wide range of digital platforms with tailored content such as Chinese-language coverage of the NBA and international soccer. Tencent will also get exclusive digital rights in mainland China to ESPN’s March Madness coverage, along with more than 100 regular season college basketball games and the X Games.

By partnering with Tencent, ESPN ensures its sports content gets prominent placement throughout the Chinese company’s massive Internet holdings, which include the popular Chinese instant-messaging service QQ as well as the country’s largest social network, WeChat and its more than 650 million monthly active users.

“This agreement will help us serve millions of Chinese fans and bring our coverage of basketball, international soccer and other sports to them like never before,” Russell Wolff, executive vice president of ESPN’s international arm, said in a statement. Sy Lau, Tencent’s senior executive vice president, said in his own statement the deal “will accelerate Tencent’s development as a comprehensive and professional digital platform and set benchmarks for the Chinese sports media sector.”

Starting with this year’s NBA playoffs, which kick off this spring, ESPN experts will be on hand to provide live coverage in Chinese that will be included exclusively in Tencent’s live sports coverage. While the deal initially focuses on basketball and soccer, it could eventually expand to cover additional sports.

 

Basketball has been a popular sport in China since the days of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, and many in the country of 1.4 billion people closely follow the sport’s biggest stars as well as the careers of countrymen such as the now-retired Yao Ming and the Chinese-American player Jeremy Lin. Tencent has actively tried to capitalize on the sport’s popularity in China. Last month, the NBA announced that the Chinese company will have exclusive streaming rights to the league’s online content as part of a new, five-year deal that allows Tencent to offer its users access to the NBA’s League Pass package of live and on-demand games.

As for ESPN, the Walt Disney-owned (DIS) network likely sees the deal as a no-brainer to spread its coverage across a giant market at a time when the network is struggling with subscriber losses that have left the rest of the media industry spooked over the rise of cord-cutting.