A decision by Saudi King Abdullah to grant state-controlled broadcaster Saudi Television the right for three years to air the kingdom’s soccer league matches reaffirms the region’s trend to control the sport and constitutes a setback for efforts to professionalize soccer and enable it to create value.
Saudi Culture and Information Minister Abdul Aziz Khoja said he would establish “committees to discuss ways to enable the Saudi Television channel to cover the events in the most professional manner, fulfilling the aspirations of young people, especially now that the football season is fast approaching."
Privately owned broadcasters in the Middle East who have been crowded out of the market for the rights to air soccer matches had hoped that Saudi Arabia, one of the region’s largest markets, would take a lead in leveling the playing field and opening the door to clubs developing their potential as regional brands.
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.
Commercial broadcasters say state-owned networks are distorting competition by paying absorbent for monopoly rights to broadcast major soccer events.
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 not be state-controlled broadcasting’s primary objective.
As a result, state-backed media companies are establishing a virtual monopoly on broadcasting soccer events.
The rights to the UAE Premier League were last year awarded to government-owned Abu Dhabi Media Company in a three-year deal believed to be worth $300 million.
“There are people who are paying for sports rights in this market that have no commercial imperative to make money,” David Butorac, CEO of Orbit Showtime Network (OSN), a major commercial pan-Arab satellite network that has lost bids for soccer broadcast rights, said earlier this year.
Showtime is a joint venture between Kuwait Projects Company (Holding), which has interests in finance, insurance, real estate and telecommunications and Saudi investment company Mawarid Holding.
“The issue with sports rights is this market, is the sports rights have gone for uneconomic rates. The people who own the Premier League today cannot make money for what they’ve paid,” Butorac said.