ESPN Signs Digital Distribution Deal With Chinese Internet Giant Tencent

Kobe Bryant - H 2015
AP Images

Kobe Bryant - H 2015

The agreement will give ESPN's basketball, X Games and international soccer coverage broad exposure in the Chinese market, where interest in sports is on the rise.

ESPN has reached a landmark digital distribution deal with Chinese internet giant Tencent, it was announced Wednesday.

The strategic partnership will localize and integrate the Disney's subsidiary's popular sports content across Tencent's myriad digital platforms and services. The new partners say the agreement "will help ESPN establish its most significant digital presence ever in China."

Under the deal, a dedicated ESPN page will be created on Tencent's popular QQ Sports portal, while ESPN's live and recorded sports coverage will be distributed across Tencent's streaming video platforms and apps, as well as its WeChat and QQ messaging services, which count over 650 million monthly active users.

“Our relationship with Tencent marks an exciting new era for ESPN’s global business," ESPN International executive vp Russell Wolff said in a statement. "This agreement will help us serve millions of Chinese fans.” 

The partners say they will initially focus on localizing ESPN's NBA and international soccer coverage, with the potential to expand to other sports over the course of the agreement. Beginning with the 2016 NBA Playoffs, ESPN commentators will provide live, court-side analysis in Mandarin Chinese at five games per week. ESPN also will create a weekly NBA opinion and debate program in Chinese for Tencent's users. The agreement is said to include plans to co-develop additional Chinese-language sports content. 

Interest in sports is on the rise across China, but basketball has a particularly huge following. An estimated 300 million mainland Chinese play the game, and retired Houston Rockets center Yao Ming remains one of the most popular public figures in the country. Kobe Bryant, affectionately known as "Xiao Fei Xia" (Little Flying Warrior), has 3.9 million followers on local social networking service Weibo — more than Bill Gates (3.2 million) and slightly less than Tom Cruise (5.3 million). 

Tencent is also licensing exclusive, live digital rights to more than 100 regular-season college basketball games and ESPN's coverage of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship Tournament (aka "March Madness"). Tencent also grabbed exclusive live rights to ESPN's coverage of the X Games. 

"After years of evolution, China’s sports media is now at a crossroads and is ready to transform," said Yuefeng Sam Xie, general manager of marketing and business development of Tencent Sports.