What the UK TV broadcast deal means for the Chinese Super League
The Chinese Super League (CSL) has attracted a great deal of attention in 2016 as the number of star names heading east continues to rise. Wealthy backers are funding recruitment of talent unseen in the history of Asian football, surpassing even the J.League's rapid rise in the early 1990s, with the aim of creating a wider football industry to rival Europe's leading nations.
As has been frequently examined, there is no intention of making a profit behind the spending. Instead, wealthy individuals and corporations are keen to be seen as supporting a government-led initiative to expand China's sports industry.
World-famous names have been recruited not solely for their on-pitch abilities, but rather to supply a quick boost to the league's standing both in China and across the world.
And, with the recent decision of Sky Sports to air the league in the UK, it appears to be working.
The CSL has been broadcast in Brazil since the beginning of the campaign, while Ma Chaine Sports hold the rights in France. The league is shown in Hong Kong and Singapore among other Asian countries. However, no previous announcement has made the impact of the recent announcement of Sky's intention to broadcast games each weekend to a British audience.
Of all foreign footballing broadcasters, Sky are the best known in China due to their key role in the development of the Premier League over the past 24 years. That the channel should now show an interest in the CSL is seen as a major step for Chinese football.
No details have been revealed of the finances of the deal, but it is not expected there was great expenditure -- if any at all -- on Sky's behalf. For the broadcaster it is rather a convenient way to make up for a recent reduction in live football at times which will not clash with their coverage of the Premier League.
This is not an agreement fuelled by financial riches or, indeed, a great public demand for the league to be broadcast. Instead, the CSL is actively attempting to raise its profile internationally and is seeking out leading players in the industry as a means of doing so.
IMG manage the competition's rights distribution, Nike are the official apparel supplier, while Red Bull and Tag Heuer are among recently recruited sponsors. Prestige rather than finance has been the driving force behind such moves. Chinese companies may be able to offer more attractive financial packages, but elite brands bring much sought-after credibility.
Earning the approval of supporters outside of China, though, will involve packaging an aesthetically pleasing product which transfers well onto television screens -- a major factor in the Premier League's rise since 1992.
LeTV reporter Chen Qingyang believes this learning curve could be the biggest benefit of foreign broadcasters taking the CSL to a wider audience.
"Chinese people care a lot about how they are seen by foreigners, so it's a great step forward," she told ESPN FC. "Not only will the deal allow foreign audiences to see the good side of the CSL, it will also reveal some areas that really need improving.
"Hopefully it will give the league and FA incentive to make some changes. The standard of pitches and referees, for example, are regular problems."
The same intrigue with how the wider world regards China is identified by China Sports Insider's Mark Dreyer as a big reason the Sky deal has made such a splash among fans.
"Sky's interest -- and by extension the interest of UK football fans -- is seen in China as a badge of honour," Dreyer told ESPN FC. "From a Chinese perspective, that proves that the overarching national aim to improve football at all levels is already working.
"At this stage the short-term recognition of buying high-profile players will be more important to the CSL than the minimal long-term benefits."
Will the CSL be able to gain a wider audience through its UK broadcasts? MLS, Brasileirao, A.League and other divisions outside of Europe have been shown on British television with differing regularity in recent years, but none have picked up anything that could be regarded as a significant UK fanbase.
There is no reason to believe that a plethora of second-tier stars should make the Chinese league any more popular.
However, Cameron Wilson, a Shanghai Shenhua supporter for the past decade and founder of the Wild East Football fansite, believes that the continued investment in big names could see more international fans begin to follow the league.
"The financial might of the CSL has now forced international media to take China's domestic game seriously," he told ESPN FC. "Interest is growing and people have worked out the league actually has many entertaining games. By getting involved now, Sky are gaining an early mover advantage by signing up whilst coverage costs less."
Ultimately, international recognition of any kind is a major step forward from where the league stood just a year ago. It is not that long ago that any non-domestic coverage of the league, with the exception of betting websites, was a rarity.
It may be "bought" acknowledgement, but Chinese football is now becoming a known entity.
With the influx of stars expected to continue for some time yet, encouraged by the exposure the league is garnering, Sky's early introduction to the market could yet prove a wise investment of resources. The long-term future is hard to predict, but the league is surely only going to grow in stature in the imminent future.
As the money keeps flowing, the hope is that long-term football brands will emerge that allows the country to build a prosperous sports industry. Broadcasting in the UK is the latest step on this long road to acknowledgement as a credible footballing nation.
Chris Atkins is based in China and writes for ESPN FC about the Chinese Super League. You can follow him on Twitter @ChrisAtkins_.