State-owned Arab TV Networks Employ Soccer to Boost Tarnished Credibility

Commercial broadcasters in the Middle East say state-owned networks are distorting competition by paying absorbent for monopoly rights to broadcast major soccer events.

The criticism comes ten days after Al Jazeera, the Qatar-owned path-breaking but controversial television network, paid an undisclosed amount for the right to broadcast the 2018 Russia and 2022 Qatar World Cups in the Middle East and North Africa.

Commercial rights to last year’s tournament in South Africa were sold for $3.4 billion.

It also follows last year’s awarding of the exclusive rights to air UAE Premier League to government-owned Abu Dhabi Media Company in a three-year deal believed to be worth $300 million.

As a result, state-backed media companies are establishing a virtual monopoly on broadcasting soccer events.

“There are people who are paying for sports rights in this market that have no commercial imperative to make money,” says David Butorac, CEO of Orbit Showtime Network (OSN), a major commercial pan-Arab satellite network that has lost bids for soccer broadcast rights.

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.

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.

In a soccer-crazy region dominated by authoritarian regimes that do not brook dissent, controlling soccer rights is, perhaps with the exception of Al Jazeera, a key tool in attracting viewers to what are often networks with little credibility.

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