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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

BeIN Sports block in UAE leaves football fans scrambling ahead of new season

Amid the current diplomatic crisis with Qatar, access to the beIN Sports TV network has been blocked by local providers in the UAE

Romelu Lukaku has enjoyed a good start at Manchester United. Rick Bowmer / AP Photo
Romelu Lukaku has enjoyed a good start at Manchester United. Rick Bowmer / AP Photo

Thousands of fans awaiting the start of the English Premier League season next month will most likely need to find alternative ways to spend their free time once matches kick-off on August 11.

Amid the current diplomatic crisis with Qatar, access to the beIN Sports TV network has been blocked by local providers in the UAE.

BeIN has exclusive rights to broadcast live English Premier League football matches across the Middle East and North Africa region and with Qatar showing little interest in ceasing its support of extremist groups, the crisis is expected to roll on, which means the blackout of the sports network will also continue without being resolved.

If the situation persists into the second half of the season, however, the contract held by Qatar-based beIN with the Premier League may then be in jeopardy, according to experts in sports broadcasting rights.

BeIN, originally branded Al Jazeera Sports before it was spun off in 2014, is entering the second-year of a three-year contract but is likely already facing questions from both the league and advertisers over its ability to reach viewers, according to a UK-based sports legal expert who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the subject.

While the Premier League will be jittery about losing viewers in one of its most lucrative viewing and sponsorship markets, it will think long before ending a contract with a long-term media partner which could reduce competition for future rights battles, said the legal expert.

READ MORE: Fans turn to British and German internet streaming sites for football

The league would probably have a legal justification built into the contract to terminate if the dispute continued but “the bigger issue is if they would want to,” said the expert. “There will be a tipping point. My gut feeling is that it will not be in the first two, three or four months of the Premier League season.”

Saudi Arabia, which announced last month the launch of a sports network to challenge beIN’s dominance, has also blocked its channels. BeIN has reacted angrily and says it has no long-term concerns about its future prospects.

“What we’re told by beIN is that a lot of rights holders are very sympathetic to the situation,” said Robin Jellis, the editor of TV Sports Markets. “I think the Premier League would be understanding of the situation. Do they [beIN] have a genuine fear of losing the rights? I would say no.”

While beIN also broadcasts in markets outside the Middle East such as in France and the US, taken together Saudi Arabia and the UAE account for over half of its regional subscriber base of about 2.5 million, according to 2013 data.

BeIN is also the exclusive broadcaster in the region of live matches from Spain’s La Liga, Germany’s Bundesliga, Italy’s Serie A, France’s Ligue 1 and the UEFA Champions League.

The first el Clasico of the 2016/17 season between Barcelona and Real Madrid was watched by 520,000 people in the region, according to beIN.

Despite experts' warnings about the Premier League, on Thursday, beIN said it had agreed with Uefa an extension of the rights to broadcast Champions League matches until 2021.

Nasser Al Khalaifi, beIN’s chairman and chief executive, confirmed that for the upcoming football season it would continue to be the provider all televised matches to which it had broadcast rights to in the region.

While direct BeIN subscribers in the UAE are said to still be able to receive a signal, they will be in a minority as about 700,000 people are subscribers of Etisalat’s TV services while du has about 200,000 customers, according to consultants Frost & Sullivan.

“We do not have any comments to share in this regard. We shall keep you posted in case there is any related development,” a du spokesperson said when contacted by The National.

Satellite pay-TV provider OSN has also stopped broadcasting beIN channels.

In a March report, Frost & Sullivan said that the Middle East “is passionate about football and other sports in a way that it is likened to a religious following”.

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Qatar Crisis

> UAE diplomat says Al Qaeda attacked Emirati troops after Qatar tip off

> Doha must negotiate its way back into the fold or face years of isolation

> Saudi Arabia lets Qataris go on Haj, despite diplomatic row

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“Subscriptions also rise during the season, as people are willing to pay any price to watch the sports events live,” it said.

Restaurants and cafes that show live football have told The National that their businesses will be impacted.

BeIN also holds the rights for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups but the Premier League is an important audience draw for beIN, from which it secures its highest ratings. Terms for the current beIN deal with the English Premier League announced in November 2015 were not revealed but was believed to be sharply up on its previous three-year deal reportedly about US$315 million.

Major sports contracts can include commitments to levels of viewers and a clause which allows for the contract to be put on ice in the event of unforeseen circumstances for an agreed period of time, according to the legal expert who was not party to the terms of the deal. After that period of time the league could have the right to terminate the contract.

The big five European leagues secured $7.3 billion in broadcasting revenues in 2015/16, with the Premier League the biggest earner, according to annual survey by financial services firm Deloitte. Each of the 20 Premier League clubs earned nearly £30 million ($39m) from overseas broadcasting rights in that year.

This is not the first time that beIN has had problems with broadcasting live English Premier League matches in the region. Three years ago it angered fans when it limited the number of matches it broadcast live as it battled the piracy of its signal into other markets like the UK.