Al Jazeera agreed on Thursday to pay $129 million a year for the right to broadcast two live premium games a week and for other associated rights over four seasons between 2012 and 2016.
Canal Plus, a unit of French media giant Vivendi SA, ensured that it remains the dominant player in the broadcasting of French soccer by agreeing to pay $€500 million a year for the right to choose which games it wants to broadcast over the same period.
Al Jazeera made its successful bid in the knowledge that Canal Plus would seek to maintain its dominant position even though it was determined to spend less than the $662 million a year it had forked over in the last auction four years ago.
Al Jazeera’s bid for the French rights is part of Qatar’s effort to leverage soccer as a political and business tool. Earlier this year Al Jazeera won the right to broadcast the 2018 Russia and 2022 Qatar World Cups in the Middle East and North Africa. A Qatari fund linked to the Gulf state’s royal family last month took a 70 per cent stake in Paris St-Germain, a Ligue 1 club.
Al Jazeera acquired the right to air the World Cups via cable TV, satellite, terrestrial, mobile and broadband in 23 territories and countries in the first broadcast-rights deal to be struck since world soccer body FIFA’s controversial awarding to Qatar of the right to host the 2022 tournament.
The Qatar broadcaster has approached French telecommunications carrier France Telecom SA to buy its Orange Sport TV channel. A bid by Orange for the right to show matches on mobile devices was deemed too low by the league and rejected.
Al Jazeera could also attempt to strike a deal with Canal Plus to recruit subscribers through the French pay-TV group.
Jazeera has said it had bid for the French rights independent of the Qatari government.
By distancing the government from the bid, Al Jazeera was attempting to shield itself from any fallout from allegations that Qatar bribed FIFA executive committee members to wins the rights for the 2022 World Cup.
The allegations have thrown FIFA into the worst crisis in its 107-year history. Qatari national and Asian Football Confederation (AFC) chief Mohamed Bin Laden was suspended last month on charges that he had bribed Caribbean soccer officials to support his failed challenge to FIFA president Sepp Blatter in the organization’s presidential election earlier this month. Mr. Bin Hammam was closely associated with the Qatari World Cup bid. FIFA vice president Jack Warner, who was also suspended last month, resigned this week.
La Ligue has also been hit by dropping crowd attendance and a depressed transfer market.
The bulk of the revenues from the sale of the TV rights will be transferred to top league teams and will provide a significant amount of their overall revenue.
Because of their lower cash flow, French teams have found it difficult to hold onto top world players and have struggled to keep French talent at home. They have also struggled to shine in European competitions. None has won the prestigious Champion's League title since 1993.
Al Jazeera’s push into expanded sports broadcasting comes as commercial broadcasters in the Middle East accuse state-owned networks of distorting competition by paying absorbent for monopoly rights to broadcast major soccer events.
Critics of the state-owned broadcasters point to last year’s awarding of the exclusive rights to air the UAE Premier League to government-owned Abu Dhabi Media Company in a three-year deal believed to be worth $300 million as an example of a state-owned company splashing money without having to ensure a return on its investment.
With long-standing popular discontent exploding into anti-government protests on the streets of Arab capitals after having bubbled under the surface for years, profit may indeed not be state-controlled broadcasting’s primary objective.
In a soccer-crazy region dominated by authoritarian regimes that do not brook dissent, controlling soccer rights is a key tool in attracting viewers to what are often networks with little credibility.