The Premier League was engulfed in the biggest cash crisis in its history on Thursday night after terminating its television deal in China in a move that left it with a potential £800 million-plus coronavirus bill.
The world's richest league pulled the plug on its £564 million (NZD$1.1 billion) contract with Chinese conglomerate Suning Holdings – its most lucrative-ever overseas deal – following a legal dispute over an unpaid £160 million rights fee during the Covid-19 crisis.
The drastic decision was taken during Thursday's Premier League shareholders' meeting and left officials barely a week to find a replacement broadcast partner or face starting the season without one.
The loss of around £300m from the Chinese deal – £265m of it is said to have been paid up front – came on top of rebates paid to all its rights holders over the three-month suspension of football during the pandemic.
Clubs were told last season those would total £330m, plus £36m for every week the campaign went beyond its official end date of July 16.
Coupled with an estimated loss of match-day revenue of £177m and counting, the potential total losses suffered by clubs is £800m and rising.
Swingeing cost-cutting measures have already been imposed by teams because of these severe shortfalls, including a controversial wave of redundancies, and the news from China would have sparked fears of more to come, particularly given sides have spent millions in the transfer market already this summer.
The Premier League declined to comment beyond a terse announcement of the termination of a contract that represented a six per cent chunk of its record-breaking £9.2bn cluster of television deals for the 2019-2022 seasons.
The broadcasting arm of Suning, PPLive Sports International, responded with a post on its official Weibo account in which it blamed the Covid-19 crisis for the impasse.
Confirming it had attempted to renegotiate its deal, it said: "Covid-19 has brought many challenges, and it's especially obvious during broadcasting rights negotiations.
"After rounds of meetings, PPLive Sports and the Premier League have a disagreement on the price of broadcasting rights. We regret we couldn't have an agreement with the Premier League."
Disagreements included attempts by the company to secure a three-year extension to its contract to cover the 2022-25 seasons at a more advantageous price.
Premier League clubs had considered negotiating a new payment plan with Suning or terminating the deal last month before voting for the latter at the meeting.
Suning bought the rights to the previous three-year cycle back in November 2016, months after securing a majority stake in Inter Milan that it holds to this day.
It did so at the peak of Chinese interest in international football, with the Premier League managing to secure a 12-fold increase on its previous contract in the region with Super Sports Media.
But Suning's ability to fund the deal was called into question even before the pandemic after it laid off a large number of staff last year following a period in which it spent heavily on rights agreements including those of Europe's other major leagues, La Liga, the Bundesliga and Serie A.
The termination of its Premier League contract has also taken place against a backdrop of simmering political tension between Britain and China, including over the future of Hong Kong.
In a stark message in July, the Chinese ambassador in London warned of consequences following Boris Johnson's pledge to offer UK residency to up to 3 million residents of the former British colony.
The Prime Minister's decision to block Chinese technology giant Huawei's involvement in the UK's new 5G network over security concerns also soured relations.
The Premier League also found itself at the centre of a diplomatic row with China last year after Mesut Ozil spoke out on Instagram against alleged human rights abuses inflicted on the country's Muslim Uighur population in Xinjiang.
And, only this summer, Chinese state broadcaster CCTV Sports – to which Suning sublicensed some matches – caused a stir by switching their coverage of Liverpool's 5-3 win over Chelsea to a less-viewed digital channel.
It remained to be seen last night whether CCTV or another broadcaster would be willing or able to step into the void left by Suning and, if so, how much they would be prepared to pay at a time of global financial turmoil.
Football finance expert Kieran Maguire, a lecturer in the subject at the University of Liverpool, told The Telegraph: "It will be a challenge for the Premier League, because if you're dealing with a Chinese company, normally it is linked directly or indirectly to some form of government approval.
"If the withdrawal of payment by the present broadcaster was approved by central government then it's difficult to see how the Premier League is going to negotiate with a new broadcast partner in China.
"I don't think they'd be hurrying into a deal for the start of this season."
It also remained to be seen whether the termination of the Suning deal would end up in court.
Maguire warned the Premier League could struggle to find a major legal firm prepared to take on a Chinese conglomerate if that meant risking "upsetting" clients based in the country.
Saying it had a similar problem when trying to shut down pirate network beoutQ in Saudi Arabia, he added: "Trying to find legal representation, I think, will be a big challenge for the Premier League and I think they will be trying to negotiate behind the scenes for an alternative."