• Andrew Collins

ESPN & Tencent: Who’s the real winner?

Updated: Jun 4, 2019

ESPN announced a landmark deal with Tencent forming a strategic digital partnership in China. The deal signifies that even the biggest Western media networks realise the importance of Chinese partners.

ESPN attributes its growth to the rise of technology, most notably digital communication networks and social media platforms. The new deal with Tencent highlights their value on technology and finding the right partner in China’s unique digital landscape.

‘Through the collaboration, ESPN’s content will be localized and exclusively distributed and promoted by Tencent’s digital platforms in China.’

Essentially, Tencent Sports will launch a dedicated sports section for ESPN which will feature live streams, localised articles, expert analysis for the NBA, NCAA, international football and X Games. The NBA, who similarly launched a partnership with Tencent back in 2015, will receive the largest exposure as the new deal will complement their exclusive coverage with new program content, further strengthening their claim as the #1 sport in China.

This is not however unchartered land for Tencent, who have previously signed media partnerships with Sony’s music library in 2014, as well as National Geographic and YG entertainment. They’ll look to use their experience from these deals and their existing sports userbase to dominate the North American sports market in China.

It’s thought that the decision to partner with Tencent was hugely influenced by their current deal with the NBA. The deal has been a huge success in promoting viewership of the sport, with an estimated 700 million fans tuning in to games last year on CCTV5. Tencent are also one of the biggest media powerhouses in China, and particularly strong in the social landscape. The partnership will give ESPN full access to their social platforms and promotional functions, including WeChat with an enormous 650 million MAUs. Sam Xie, General Manager of Sports Business Development and Marketing at Tencent said in Red Card 2016 that Tencent ‘will provide more multi-dimensional coverage preferably on an exclusive basis.’

Was it the right choice?

The partnership highlights the difficulties involved in developing a presence in China. ESPN, one of the global major media networks, chose to launch in partnership with a Chinese network instead of going independently. The Chinese media landscape is challenging and unique, with industries overlapping from broadcasting to social networks. By partnering with Tencent, ESPN will avoid conflict with these Chinese networks, and solve the issue of finding the best way to deliver great content to the right audience. Sam Miao, Digital Manager @ Mailman Sport, believes ‘it’s a smart move for ESPN because China is a whole different market. ESPN uses a subscription model in the US but it’s hard to copy that in China. So to find a partner who has tons of experience in this market is a great choice.’

Both ESPN and Tencent will be very happy with the landmark deal. Miao says ‘Tencent will have more content to establish them as the leading sports portal in China, and it’s a huge first step for ESPN to get into China. For me it’s a win-win situation over the first couple of years. After that we will see.’ Outside of Tencent and ESPN, it’s hard to look anywhere but the Chinese fans as the real winners. They will get authentic and expert content for free, growing a new generation of loyal basketball fans.

What does this mean for the industry?

Media networks in China have been in a constant battle over the last few years to sign the biggest names. PPTV secured a Club TV partnership with Liverpool FC, Tencent shortly announced a digital partnership with Barcelona, and two weeks later Sina Sports signs a Club TV partnership with Manchester United. Tencent has landed the first blow with this landmark deal by partnering with a global media network. It’s now up to Sina Sports and others to make the next move. Fox Sports partnering with Sina Sports, or BBC Sports partnering with LeTV could be already under way.


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