Weibo's owner finds little appeal in live sport streams

Sina Sports says no need to mirror Twitter’s strategy

Weibo will not emulate Twitter in making the move into broadcasting live sport, say the owners of the Chinese microblogging site.

Twitter agreed a deal in May this year to stream free 10 live US National Football League gridiron matches after an experiment on Yahoo in 2015 that produced 15 million viewers, but Chinese sports broadcasting has a different dynamic that means Weibo will not follow suit.

“We wouldn’t really entertain putting live games in Weibo because we already have the platform,” says Sam Li, the head of content acquisition and strategic partnerships at the Chinese digital platform Sina Sports, which owns Weibo.

The broadcasting of sport on digital platforms in China is moving apace. Alibaba has a content deal with World Rugby, while Sina Sports is snapping up a string of broadcast deals in football, golf and tennis. Among them is its deal to cover the US Open tennis tournament, which was expanded in August.

But football remains the key to growth at the platform, which streams matches from the German Bundesliga, the Uefa Champions League and the English Premier League.

Speaking on a panel on the changing landscape of sports broadcasting at the annual Soccerex conference in Manchester, Mr Li provides a rare insight into the evolution of Sina Sports.

The service started as a bulletin board in 1988 and began streaming live matches a decade ago.

Mr Li says that while in China the younger generation are much more accustomed to watching digital media, any push in this direction should be about more than just watching the game.

“We have a national TV network, CCTV, regional stations and a network of national satellite stations but we don’t operate in that area due to regulatory reasons,” says Mr Li, who adds: “In the sports world we have a little more freedom than news. For sports, we are pretty much left on our own.”

China’s government has looked to sport to boost the country’s profile, which has produced significant Chinese investment overseas. This ranges from CMC buying a 13 per cent stake in Abu Dhabi-owned Manchester City parent City Football Group to a string of other deals for clubs in the Czech Republic, France, the Netherlands and Spain. On the back of this overseas interest, Sina Sports has grown substantially with deals ranging from a major advertising deal with Clear Shampoo to a content agreement with the swimming superstar Michael Phelps tied into to this year’s Olympic Games in Rio.

The platform has also agreed a deal with Man City’s crosstown rivals Manchester United that allows Sina Sports to screen its club channel, MUTV.

“Right now, that’s a completely free product [in China] for United fans, who have to pay for it in the rest of the world,” says Mr Li. “We are starting to provide a 24-7 place for people to watch sport. There is no equivalent of You Tube or Snap Chat in China so we have taken up that place, too.”

There has been huge investment in Chinese domestic football. There was a total of US$2296 million spent on transfers in the winter transfer window in January and February, with Alex Teixeira joining Jiangsu Suning from Shaktar Donetsk for a record $50m.

Sina has the rights to broadcast China’s Super League and the Asian Champions League, but the key to further growth lays in the rights to the overseas sports.

“The domestic league has a lot of attention,” says Mr Li.

“It’s finally on the rise, but most fans understand that the quality is not there so most fans have a European team.”

For the final of the 2016 Champions League on May 28, between the Spanish teams Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid, Sina Sports recorded 15 million viewers even though the match kicked off at 2:45am Chinese time. Mr Li acknowledges the problems created by time differences between China and the markets where the sports they have rights to are played. “That’s what makes highlights packages much more important for us.”

Sina Sports produces regular early morning highlights package for both European football and basketball from America, which are on a par in terms of domestic support, he says.

“Basketball is definitely growing. Football is number one or two.”

And those two sports look to be the drivers of overseas content for Sina as the platform aims to dominate the Sino sports broadcasting world for the foreseeable future.

* Steve Menary


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