Chinese state television is taking English Premier League football matches off the air, bringing the lucrative world of professional soccer into the increasingly fraught relations between Beijing and the U.K.
CCTV, which has the rights to broadcast Premier League matches in China, won’t show the remainder of the current competition round, said a person familiar with the decision. A match between Liverpool FC and Chelsea FC wasn’t aired as planned Wednesday night, the person said, asking not to be identified discussing internal matters. There is one final round of matches remaining this season, slated to be played this weekend. CCTV’s program schedule no longer includes those games.
The move comes amid a deterioration of ties between the two countries in recent weeks, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government banning telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies Co. and opposing the new security law imposed in Hong Kong. The U.K. and the U.S. — which has also been taking a more confrontational stance with China — have discussed creating a coalition of countries to counter Beijing.
This wouldn’t be the first time competitive sports has been brought into geopolitics. Last year, CCTV dropped coverage of National Basketball Association matches after a team official made comments supporting pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.
Officials at CCTV and China’s foreign ministry didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment, while a representative at the British Embassy in Beijing declined to comment. The move didn’t appear to extend to streaming platforms, with the Liverpool-Chelsea match aired on Chinese video app PPTV.
CCTV’s action “is symbolic of what else could come following decisions around Hong Kong and Huawei,” said Mark Tanner, founder of Shanghai-based research and marketing firm China Skinny.
Tensions between the U.K. and China have been building for a while, with the future of Hong Kong — a former British colony — being the main flash point. The Hong Kong security law, which includes life sentences for crimes such as separatism or subversion, has snuffed out almost all mass protests and is threatening safeguards and freedoms that the city was guaranteed at least until 2047 as part of the handover agreement.
The U.K. has banned arms sales to Hong Kong, suspended its extradition treaty with the city and invited as many as three million Hong Kongers to apply for citizenship in the U.K. China has accused the U.K. of acting as a “catspaw” for the Trump administration and foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told reporters this week that London should halt its “wrong words and actions.”
Relations between the U.S. and China worsened this week, with President Donald Trump’s administration on Wednesday ordering the closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston, marking a new low in their ties. Beijing has threatened to retaliate.
While soccer as a sport isn’t as developed in China as it is in many European or South American nations, the country is seen as a huge potential growth market, with President Xi Jinping a notable fan of the game.
Some of England’s biggest clubs have targeted China for expansion. Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur traveled to Shanghai for an exhibition game last year. In the past, Britain has also used soccer as a tool for diplomacy, treating Xi to a Manchester City visit that culminated in a selfie photo with player Sergio Aguero flanked by Xi and the then Prime Minister David Cameron.
The move by CCTV, the country’s main state-backed broadcaster, could impact a 2015 plan from Xi to transform China into a soccer superpower. That proposal had prompted companies such as Chinese entertainment giant Dalian Wanda Group Co. to pour millions of dollars into foreign clubs — a trend that has abated following a crackdown by Beijing on capital outflows.
In the controversy involving the NBA, the later-deleted tweet by Houston Rockets’ general manager Daryl Morey supporting Hong Kong protesters triggered a backlash from Chinese companies and fans. Local sponsors withdrew their backing for the NBA, while Commissioner Adam Silver defended Morey’s right to free speech. CCTV still doesn’t air NBA games in China.