CCTV forms venture with IMG

Host Olympic broadcaster to work with sports marketer

UPDATED Aug. 4, 2008

Sports marketer IMG Worldwide and Olympic host broadcaster China Central Television have formed a 20-year exclusive joint venture that IMG's lead China adviser, partner Robert Lawrence Kuhn, said will revolutionize sports and TV in China.

Kuhn, whose day job is as senior advisor to Citigroup in global investment banking, has worked for 20 years in China and is a biographer of former president Jiang Zemin. He said the formation of CCTV-IMG Sports Management reflects the open-mindedness of senior Communist leaders known better for keeping media in check.

"This deal is exactly in keeping with (Chinese President) Hu Jintao's political philosophy and desire to create a 'Harmonious Society,' " Kuhn said Thursday, deploying the Communist catch phrase often used to rally citizens behind the ruling party.

The new company -- announced in Beijing by Ted Forstmann, chairman of privately held IMG, and Jiang Heping, head of sports channel CCTV-5 -- will develop and promote sporting events and sports programming across China, marking the first time a company based outside China (IMG has its headquarters in New York) has entered into an exclusive, multiyear contract with the world's largest TV broadcaster, state-run CCTV.

Kuhn, who Forstmann approached soon after buying IMG in 2004, said he, in turn, took the idea for the partnership to China's leaders talking about the country's growing imbalance of wealth.

"If you are rich person in Shanghai or a poor person in Lanzhou, everybody in China can enjoy sports at the same level," said Kuhn, who advised CCTV on the production of the 2000 investigative documentary series "In Search of China," which aired on PBS. "Sports is a CCTV priority.  It is also for China’s senior leaders, though lower down on their list of things to tackle."

In a country increasingly sports-mad ahead of the Olympics and hopeful that Houston Rockets center Yao Ming will lead China to basketball gold, Kuhn said IMG and CCTV would take a "narrowcast" approach in China, where CCTV-5 has an 80% market share.

The new partners are talking about which sports will make for the best commercial niches -- sports that IMG, which manages the likes of Tiger Woods, can promote by pitting international stars against rising Chinese athletes.

For instance, Kuhn said, some of the best new tennis players at coach Nick Bollettieri's academy in Florida are young Chinese women. The new venture's likely first outings, including a look at 20 winter sports, "won't be gigantic Yao Ming things," Kuhn said. "They will be small and have an individual following. If a sport has an interest of 5% of the population, that's 65 million people."

In a country where medal-contending hurdler Liu Xiang trained on tracks shabby by Western standards, Kuhn points encouragingly to the 31 Olympic venues Beijing built for in a short seven years.

Will IMG-CCTV be able to reach China's nascent sports fans, many of whom do not have the credit cards still uncommon in China? For tickets to a match between a Williams sister and Zheng Jie, the first Chinese woman to reach the semifinals at a tennis Grand Slam event, Kuhn said fans will simply reach for their cell phones. "China will soon be more sophisticated than the U.S. at selling tickets via mobile phone."