It's 9pm on a Tuesday night at a fustal court in Petaling Jaya, Selangor and Lee Choong Khay is at the peak of his game.
Better known as CK, Astro’s vice president (sports business content management group) is as far away from work matters as possible.
Instead, CK is proudly decked out in his Aston Villa kit, barking orders as he takes charge of the pitch, role-playing – interchangeably – between his childhood football heroes – (striker) Peter Withe and (midfielder) Gordon Cowans.
“I try to play futsal twice a week. I also cycle a bit. But I still love my football. These days, I start off as a forward, then I slowly drop to midfield and by the end of the match, I’m in goal,” says a candid CK, 46, during a recent interview.
The Ipoh-born has been a boyhood Aston Villa fan since the late 1970s, and it doesn’t take long for him to admit that it will take some adjusting when the Premier League season starts later this month without the now-relegated Midlands giants.
“If I’m not planning sports content at work, I will be at home playing Football Manager. Total addiction. I used to spend, like 10 hours on it, right up till 5am. I get less time on it now, but always make sure Aston Villa wins everything available,” he adds.
As the head of Astro’s sports business since 2004, CK, who holds an MBA, has also had more than a few late nights analysing modern-day sports broadcasting culture, while covering licensing, marketing, sponsorships, endorsements and more.
CK’s history at the pay TV service has been a longstanding one – going back to 1997 when he started out in the production finance unit, before eventually handling business development and later, moving to managing Astro SuperSport channel between 2000 and 2003. Today, he is in charge of 19 sports-related channels, including sports content on the mobile app Astro On The Go (AOTG). From the comfort of your home or favourite pub, to being stuck in rush hour traffic, you won’t be missing the action with such options.
“There were only three sports-dedicated channels on Astro (SuperSport, ESPN, StarSports) back in 1997, which presented four matches a week. Can you imagine how far we have come? We show 380 Premier League games a season. That’s all the games,” says CK.
In a report in The Star’s Business News on Feb 5, Astro paid close to RM1bil for its Premier League rights (season 2013 to 2016). Once again, it secured the rights to all Premier League matches for the next three seasons – paying 25% to 30% higher than the previous deal.
“What can I say about the Premier League? It’s simply the best (football) product. They know the importance of marketing it. They have a production team and a publicity hub in London ... we can use all the Premier League’s promotion tools,” says CK.
“Leceister City winning the Premier League last season made for good viewing. Can they win it again? Well, nobody gave them a chance last season,” he adds, referring to the new English Premier League season kick-off on Aug 13.
The matches will be available in full high definition and on all mobile devices via AOTG. The launch of the BeIn Sports Channel on Aug 1 is also something new for football fans, offering coverage of European football leagues including La Liga, French Ligue 1, Serie A and more.
If given the opportunity, CK could spend the whole interview talking about football, and his favourite NBA basketball team – the Chicago Bulls.
But he is more than happy to chat about the other (sports) highlights this year, including the 2016 Rio Olympics, the recent launch of eGG or Every Good Game, a dedicated 24/7 eSports channel in the region, the upcoming SepakTakraw League (September) and badminton Purple League (main league in October).
Interestingly, from January to June 2016, Astro’s sport channels registered 9.6 million viewers for its football programming, while badminton hit a respectable high with 9mil viewers and hockey attracted 5.3 million viewers.
“It’s quite difficult to manage the priorities. We have 1.4 million sports customers ... and everybody wants something of their own,” he says.
How fans watch sports these days is also a pressing priority at Astro. In fact, CK mentions that the Fifa World Cup 2014 in Rio recorded “our highest digital viewership ... but the chatter was outside the Astro circle.”
During that World Cup, Astro record 1.9 million viewers for its AOTG and related tournament apps.
Stadium Astro, which is Astro’s sports digital brand, will play a big role in keeping Astro’s sports content “sticky” on various digital platforms.
“How we are going to get social media engagement inside the Astro circle rather than outside? It’s a challenge for us. Stadium Astro has the live matches, highlights, supporting programmes, magazine shows, we want to make it all available ... to cut them into a social media angle, to get the ‘talkabilty’ happening outside into our eco-system,” he adds.
At times, CK can sound like he memorised an Astro sports brochure, but there is no corporate speak when he talks about Astro Arena.
He takes pride when discussing Astro Arena, which started in 2010. It offers 24-hour local sports coverage, providing in-depth reporting, features, highlights and magazine show content.
“We have 150 people in our sports family, with 130 staff under the Astro Arena banner. These people are very passionate about local sports. It’s been six years since Astro Arena’s arrival and we have proudly worked to tell our own (local sports) stories. The content is there every day ... the team, I reckon, has visited nearly all the stadiums and sports arenas in the country. Admittedly, we were disappointed to lose the M-League rights (in 2015), but have we have other sports to think about and develop. Just look at sepak takraw, hockey and badminton.”
Astro Arena has sent a 36-member crew to the Olympic Games in Rio, which starts Aug 5. The Astro team will provide 15 hours of daily live coverage on Malaysian athletes competing there. There will be no shortage of news from Rio. CK adds that 12 dedicated channels (both in SD and HD channels) on Astro TV and on AOTG will deliver comprehensive coverage of the Olympic Games.
Outside conventional sports, CK says the popularity of eSports has grown tremendously in the last couple of years. Astro started broadcasting eSports tournaments – on a temporary channel – as early as August last year. The figures (Aug-Dec 2015) was over 5 milionl viewers, convincing Astro to give eSports a permanent home. As an avid gamer himself, CK, who lists classic games such as Counter Strike, Half-Life and Left 4 Dead as favourites, is most pleased with the launch of Astro’s eSports channel called eGG or Every Good Game channel in June.
Astro views the eGG channel as a link to connect with the younger generation.
“Suddenly, we have millennials saying ‘Astro is cool’. When it comes to eSports, we needed to go to them to learn more about this gaming phenomenon. Our approach is: ‘Why do you need to watch eSports on your personal devices when you can watch it on TV with your friends ... just like a Premier League game?’ Astro was the first (in this region) to broadcast live on television The International 2015 Dota 2 Championship last August,” says CK.
In an eSports context, this new channel is a one-stop for gamers. It features pubstomps, gaming walkthroughs, expert guides, documentaries, game house tours and weekly highlights, along with an international and local line-up of young hosts.
Starting this week, the eGG channel will be offering full coverage of The International 2016 (TI6). To gamers, this is like watching a FIFA World Cup. TI6, with a US$18.5mil (RM75.3mil) prize pool, will take place at the KeyArena in Seattle, Washington in the US till Aug 13.
“Over 1.6 million fans here tuned in to the final of TI5 last year. We expect an even stronger viewership this time around,” he says.
As much as CK wants to actively participate in online gaming, his days of shooting zombies and terrorists are long gone. He might have less time to indulge in gaming. However, his new role is to take eSports to a wider audience.
“As you get older, you cannot compete online. I used to play Counter Strike, but I had to unplug myself and play offline now. I’ll leave the competitive gaming to the younger generation,” concludes CK with a broad smile.