Chinese state television appears to have demoted broadcasts of Premier League matches to lesser watched channels amid deepening hostilities with the UK.
Bloomberg reported on Thursday a source saying CCTV, China’s state terrestrial broadcaster, would not be showing the final round of Premier League games, and observers linked the decision to the growing hostilities between Britain and China.
Asked about the reports on Thursday afternoon, a Chinese foreign ministry declined to confirm or deny their veracity, the BBC reported.
The games are usually broadcast on CCTV’s sport channel, but it Wednesday’s game between Liverpool and Chelsea was broadcasted on CCTV 5+, a much less watched channel. Sunday’s game between Leicester and Manchester United is also scheduled for CCTV 5+, according to the broadcaster’s website.
It is not clear whether streaming subscription services – which are the primary delivery service for the Premier League games – have been affected.
In 2016 the Chinese digital broadcaster PPTV signed a three-year £564m deal with the Premier League. Scheduled to begin from 2019-20, it was the richest TV deal for the league outside the UK.
“Something is going on. The question is what is going on?” said Simon Chadwick, professor of Eurasian sports at emlyon business school, who was the first to report on social media that the games had been pulled, citing sources connected to CCTV.
The UK is offering residency to millions of Hongkongers seeking to flee growing Beijing control of the semi-autonomous city, has banned the use of Huawei in 5G mobile networks, and is increasingly allied with the US in criticism of China, including for its treatment of Uighur and other Muslim minority populations.
“The general temperature between Britain and the US and China has risen dramatically,” Chadwick said. “It seems to be this last round of Premier League football is getting caught up in it.”
Last year CCTV took the NBA off air for months after an executive expressed solidarity with the Hong Kong protesters, and in December did not broadcast an Arsenal game after player Mesut Özil, a Turkish-origin German and practising Muslim, used social media to condemn China’s treatment of Uighurs.
“If you take the case of Özil and the NBA case, Chinese TV does have a track record of doing this kind of thing. But crucially, on both those cases, they just posted single tweets,” said Chadwick.
“Now we have Boris Johnson making very public and strident statements about Britain’s position on China. It’s an incendiary environment, it’s not about single tweets.”
If the broadcasts have been cancelled, Chadwick questioned whether Chinese authorities would even make a statement about it, saying often such decisions were made with no reasons or announcements.