SYDNEY Chinese company LeSports had its four-year contract to broadcast Asian Football Confederation (AFC) competitions terminated by the continental governing body last week after failing to pay an instalment on the deal, sources have confirmed to Reuters.
The deal, worth in excess of $100 million, was signed with the sports unit of Chinese technology giant LeEco in October 2015 and gave the company exclusive China broadcast rights to matches played under AFC auspices.
The agreement was cancelled last week, sources said, after LeSports failed to pay the latest instalment on a contract that covered the Asian Champions League, Asia's final round of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup finals and the Asian Cup from 2017 until 2020.
There was no immediate reply to a request for comment from LeEco. The AFC told Reuters it was not in a position to comment.
The AFC oversees all football in Asia and its showpiece club tournament, the Asian Champions League, includes the top sides from the continent as well as Australia.
LeSports, which also holds the China rights for the 2018 World Cup finals in Russia, made a last-minute payment in December to ensure it was able to honour its commitments to broadcast the English Premier League.
LeEco announced in January it had received new investment worth 15.04 billion yuan ($2.19 billion) from property developer Sunac China Holdings.
While China's national football team has struggled in recent years, interest in the club game has surged in China.
Guangzhou Evergrande won the Asian Champions League in 2013 and 2015 and an influx of highly-paid foreign talent, including Brazilian Oscar and Argentine Carlos Tevez, has flooded into the Chinese Super League (CSL) in time for the kickoff of its new season next weekend.
Chinese entities and individuals have ploughed more than $3 billion into overseas soccer investments over the past year or so but plenty of money has been spent in China too.
Entrepreneurs, encouraged by avid fan President Xi Jinping, have answered the call to help swell the domestic sports market five-fold to a value of 5 trillion yuan ($727.22 billion) by 2025.
LeEco has been expanding aggressively in a range of businesses including online entertainment, electric and driverless cars, smartphones as well as sports rights.
LeSports signed a two-year deal at the start of 2016 worth 2.7 billion yuan ($392.70 million) for the exclusive rights to the CSL and announced plans to purchase a stake in the Beijing Guoan club, although that deal was not completed.
LeEco's billionaire chief executive, Jia Yueting, said in a letter to staff in November that the conglomerate was facing cash shortages and the announcement of cuts to staffing levels at LeSports followed in December.
The next round of Asian Champions League matches will be played on Tuesday and Wednesday and the cancellation of the contract could have an impact on plans to broadcast the game between Shanghai SIPG and Australia's Western Sydney Wanderers.
($1 = 6.8755 Chinese yuan renminbi)
(Editing by Nick Mulvenney and John O'Brien)