Free soccer broadcasts return to China

One live league match plus highlights starts in 2010

BEIJING -- As three of English Premier League teams prepare do take the field in Beijing this week, Chinese soccer fans will be able to watch EPL matches on free-to-air television again from next season in a move welcomed by the league's commercial director on Tuesday.

After years of free-to-air broadcasts, the exclusive TV rights until the end of the 2009-10 season were awarded to small digital broadcaster Win TV in 2007, resulting in millions of Chinese fans being unable to get their weekly fix of Premier League action.

That hampered clubs like Manchester United from building on their fanbases in the world's most populous country, where the English champions believe they have 71 million fans.

Guangdong TV, which broadcasts to most of the nation, said last week it had paid Win TV 18 million yuan ($2.64 million) to show one Premier League game and a highlights package each week for next season.

"We have many pay TV partners in Asia and we have a responsibility to maximize revenue for our clubs so that we can continue to attract the best players in the world," the league's commercial chief Richard Masters said at the Chinese Football Industry Development Forum.

"That said, we are obviously happiest when we can match strong revenue with good viewing figures. We want as many people as possible to see Premier Leagues matches.

"In China, we are very happy that our partner WIN TV has reached an agreement so that some matches will be seen free-to-air on local stations."

Masters said that a new approach might be taken for China when the rights for the 2010-11 season and onwards were negotiated.

"The Premier League is considering a strategy for China which has been successful in many regions in Africa whereby at least one ... match each week is guaranteed free-to-air coverage," he said.

Manchester United played a friendly in Hangzhou on Sunday and Tottenham Hostpur, West Ham United and Hull City will be taking on local side Beijing Guo'an in the biennial Premier League Asia Trophy in the Chinese capital starting on Wednesday.

Asia accounted for more than 40% of the league's global audience with nearly one million fans tuning in, Masters said.