Another American sports behemoth is teaming up with a Chinese tech company.
ESPN announced today that it is partnering with Tencent, the Shenzhen-based company now worth more than $170 billion.
The agreement lets Tencent stream ESPN content to its massive user base, which totals more than 600 million on WeChat. The messaging app, which is insanely popular in China, is most comparable to Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp but with many more features. Tencent also operates QQ.com, an instant messaging platform that also has a bevy of other services like games, music, shopping, movies, and more, which has more than 850 million users.
“Tencent boasts a huge pool of users,” Tencent Senior VP SY Lau said in a statement. “Every single day, hundreds of millions of people watch streamed sports games and read sports news on Tencent. We’re really pleased to establish this relationship with ESPN, a world leading sports media group. It will accelerate Tencent’s development as a comprehensive and professional digital platform and set benchmarks for the Chinese sports media sector.”
The ESPN content will feature Mandarin-speaking anchors and commentators that will first focus on NBA and international soccer before expanding to other sports. ESPN reporters will provide live Chinese-language analysis at five NBA games per week, starting with the playoffs in April, in addition to a weekly NBA opinion and debate program.
Tencent already has a separate streaming deal in place with the NBA for live games. The company’s new partnership with ESPN will enhance its NBA content offering with live, on-site analysis from NBA games and original studio programming
Starting with basketball makes sense, as it is immensely popular in China, where around 300 million play the game. Tencent will also stream the NCAA men’s basketball tournament (March Madness), more than 100 regular season college basketball games, and the X Games as part of an exclusive digital rights agreement with ESPN.
Tencent also operates QQ Sports, a Chinese sports portal. There will now be an “ESPN” section on the site and ESPN content will be delivered across QQ.com.
For ESPN, this gives the company a way to reach the world’s most populous country that has a growing middle class and a huge sports fanbase.
“We’re excited to expand ESPN’s reach in China,” Mike Morrison, VP of ESPN Asia Pacific, said in a statement. “Chinese fans have great knowledge and passion for sports, and bringing together the strengths of Tencent and ESPN will mean they get the best content and coverage across world-class digital products.”
ESPN is not the only sports giant in the U.S. that is looking to expand in China. Just last month, GeekWire reported from CES in Las Vegas where Major League Baseball announced a deal with Le Sports to bring official live-streamed MLB games to China, Hong Kong, and Macau for the first time ever. Along with streaming games, Le Sports plans to establish online communities for all 30 MLB clubs and sell official MLB merchandise on its platforms.
At the CES press conference — which looked to be quite similar to the ESPN and Tencent event today — Le Sports VP Strategy Yu Hang noted that there is a “great revolution” happening in the Chinese sports industry. He said that the Chinese government wants to see the sports industry generate more than $1 trillion in business by 2025 — that’s up from just $63 billion last year.
“The sports industry in China is booming and has huge potential,” Hang said.
Just a few months prior to that, GeekWire was in Shanghai where the the Pac-12 conference teamed up with another Chinese tech giant, Alibaba, to host the first U.S. college basketball game played in China.
Yuefeng Sam Xie, Tencent Sports GM of Marketing and Business Development, noted that China’s sports media is now “at a crossroads.”
“The combination of Tencent and ESPN will create more value among advertisers and across the industry thanks to complementary nature of their businesses,” he said in a statement. “After years of evolution, China’s sports media is now at a crossroads and is ready to transform its traditional way of development. The collaboration between Tencent and ESPN will open an era of customization and innovation in China’s sports media sector.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect Tencent’s existing streaming deal with the NBA.