A Fight in the Middle East Opens a New Front: Sports Television – Wall Street Journal

A Fight in the Middle East Opens a New Front: Sports Television – Wall Street Journal

There was the heavyweight prize fight in the desert. There was the $3 million tennis tournament. There was the soccer match between Brazil and Argentina. And then there was the Italian Supercup featuring Cristiano Ronaldo. All of them unfolded in Saudi Arabia—and all of them came in the past two months.

And the Kingdom’s efforts to position itself as a host of major sporting events are showing no signs of slowing down. Last week, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and Valencia flew into Jeddah for a three-match tournament. At the same time, the Dakar Rally motor race began tearing across the Saudi dunes for the first time in its 40-year history.

On the surface, the Saudi push seems no different to what its neighbors in the Gulf have done for a decade to burnish their image—the country has said it hopes to become a destination for international sports and attract tourism. But there has also been a disruptive effect with geopolitical significance: Saudi’s hosting campaign is driving a wedge between the highest-profile leagues on the planet and one of the world’s largest buyers of sports television rights, BeIN Sports. It’s no coincidence that BeIN happens to be a flagship broadcaster for Qatar, the tiny, ultra-rich Gulf state that has been under a Saudi embargo for over two years.

The move follows two years of allegations that the Kingdom was behind a massive bootleg operation designed to steal BeIN’s broadcasts and tank its value across the Middle East and North Africa. Which is why many sports officials and BeIN executives today are stunned that any league would go back to the country that pirated their most valuable commodity: television rights.

Of course, Saudi Arabia hasn’t been shy about appealing to organizers directly with hefty fees through its General Sports Authority. The Spanish soccer federation, which organizes the Supercup independently of La Liga, accepted a fee of €120 million to move the event to Jeddah for three seasons—much to La Liga’s horror.

“Staging the Spanish Supercup in Saudi Arabia is an embarrassment and a big mistake,” La Liga president Javier Tebas said. “Because of the state of human rights, and because of the wholesale piracy supported by the state of not only LaLiga but many other sports in Saudi Arabia.”

Saudi’s GSA did not respond to a request for comment.

Tebas also worried that the decision to play there would fray its relationship with BeIN, which airs La Liga in more than 30 countries and territories, including the U.S.

Cristiano Ronaldo of Juventus arrives to Jeddah King Abdulaziz International Airport before the Italian Supercup between Juventus FC and AC Milan on Jan. 14.


Claudio Villa/Getty Images

Italian soccer went down the same road as the Spanish Federation last month when it took its Supercup to Saudi for the second straight year, expressly against BeIN’s wishes. The match, pitting Lazio against Ronaldo’s Juventus, so upset the broadcaster that it threatened to cancel a $500 million, three-year deal with Serie A that represents 55% of the league’s foreign rights income, according to people familiar with the matter.

“It is astonishing that the league decided to press ahead despite all the evidence of the damage that has been done to the league’s business by BeoutQ, Saudi’s pirate operation,” BeIN Media Group CEO Yousef Al-Obaidly wrote in an email. “Serie A’s leadership is putting at risk all of this, in favor of making a quick buck from the very entity that has been stealing its rights for two years.”

Serie A officials have defended the decision to play in Saudi Arabia and, according to reports in Italy, are considering expanding the Super Cup to four teams to match Spain. The league did not respond to a request for comment.

The drama surrounding BeIN and Saudi Arabia began shortly after Saudi severed diplomatic relations with Qatar in the summer of 2017. Though BeIN was officially banned in the Kingdom, consumers all over the Middle East were suddenly able to purchase set-top boxes giving them cut-price access to all of BeIN’s channels. The company’s name was BeoutQ (pronounced Be Out Q). The broadcasts, including the studio segments, were simply BeIN’s with a new watermark.

The bootleg feed could be traced back to Saudi Arabia, according to a technical report published last year and commissioned by soccer’s world and European governing bodies (FIFA and UEFA), the Asian Football Confederation, and five European leagues including the English Premier League. BeoutQ would use BeIN’s images and simply slap its own logo over any on-screen markings, the report said.

“The investigation has shown without any doubt that the satellite signal which carries all of the BeoutQ television channels is being transmitted by the Arabsat satellite,” said the technical report ordered up by FIFA and others. Arabsat is part-owned by the Saudi state.

Saudi denied any involvement, despite other probes reaching the same conclusion and a French court also finding that the BeoutQ signal was distributed by Arabsat. BeoutQ’s website, meanwhile, claimed its backers were in Colombia and Cuba. But after the technical reports became public—and European leagues stepped up their anti-piracy efforts—the Arabsat signal stopped carrying BeoutQ over the summer. (A bootleg feed of BeIN broadcasts is still available through a different portal on BeoutQ boxes.)

By then, however, Saudi was already deep into its campaign to become a major host of international sporting events, as laid out by Crown Prince

Mohammed bin Salman’s

ambitious development plan known as Vision 2030.

Real Madrid’s Federico Valverde celebrates with the MVP trophy after winning the Spanish Supercup final.


Juanjo Martin/Zuma Press

Beyond soccer, the Kingdom reached an agreement last fall with Amaury Sport Organisation, which also organizes the Tour de France, to move the Dakar Rally to the Saudi desert. It was around that time that ASO unilaterally canceled its five-year deal with BeIN Sports in the Middle East and North Africa region after first attempting to transfer the rights to a Saudi broadcaster, according to a French court.

BeIN, taking the move as a sign of Saudi meddling, sued ASO in France last October and won. ASO argued that it canceled the contract over two unpaid bills. But its subsequent appeal was thrown out in December and the company was ordered to abide by the terms of the original contract—or pay a EUR20,000 fine for every day it failed to return the feed to BeIN. ASO declined to comment.

“We are pleased that the rule of law has prevailed and that commercial contracts cannot be torn up by undue interference,” BeIN’s head of legal in France, Caroline Guenneteau, said in October. “This French ruling sends a clear message that the pressuring of commercial partners to illegally break contracts will not be tolerated.”

Write to Joshua Robinson at joshua.robinson@wsj.com

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