x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Al Jazeera Sports TV sets sights on Europe

As Qatar prepares to host the 2022 World Cup its network scores an early goal by paying nearly Dh300 million for the next best thing.

The Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoe, left, the owner of Paris St Germain and Al Jazeera Sports TV, Nasser Al Khelaifi, centre, and France’s education minister Luc Chatel at a PSG match in Paris  on Sunday.
The Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoe, left, the owner of Paris St Germain and Al Jazeera Sports TV, Nasser Al Khelaifi, centre, and France’s education minister Luc Chatel at a PSG match in Paris on Sunday.

Qatar's determination to build on a high profile won through lavish global investment has inspired a deal for Champions League football broadcasts that has severely shaken French television and sounded alarm bells elsewhere in Europe.

The Gulf state's Al Jazeera network has bought the rights to televise the lion's share of the competition - football's most important after the World Cup - on French pay-television for three seasons from next year.

The €61 million-a year (Dh293.86 million) contract with European football's governing body, Uefa, will deprive viewers without subscription packages of the right to watch live coverage in France.

Some media analysts have said Qatar may lose goodwill gained when its sovereign wealth fund took over Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), the sleeping giant of French football, this year. Nasser Al Khelaifi, who chairs Al Jazeera Sports, is also the president of PSG.

But Qatari minds are firmly concentrated on the 2022 World Cup, which it was chosen to stage despite tough competition, including strong bids from the US and Australia. Talk of possible interest in acquiring Manchester United refuses to go away.

"The aim is ultimately to make sure Qatar is firmly on the world map and when there are endless resources to back it up, it can make life difficult for the rest," said Conor O'Shea, an analyst at the Paris bureau of Kepler Capital Markets, who has been following the war of words between television rivals since the deal was announced.

He said Qatari interest could now unsettle the sports rights markets in other European countries.

"I am sure they will at least take a look when the English Premier League rights come up again in April."

Attempts have been made in France to play down the extent to which Al Jazeera has truly triumphed.

Emmanuel Berretta, a commentator at the news magazine Le Point's website, questioned the value of having 133 lesser games when the French pay-TV network Canal + had kept the best 13.

Al Jazeera has bought rights to broadcast the matches of some of the less popular teams, while Canal + still has the exclusive rights to the biggest draws.

"Who will subscribe so as not to miss Benfica playing Trabzonspor when PSG-Arsenal would be on Canal +?" he asked, suggesting that with Uefa happy to pocket the huge investment, Al Jazeera was assuming the role of Europe's "useful idiots".

Since Canal + still had the rights to two more seasons of the English Premier League, highly popular in France, where top-flight football is weaker and French players are easily lured abroad, subscribers were unlikely to switch allegiance in a hurry, he added.

The Uefa deal gives Al Jazeera four of five available Champions League packages.

The network's successful offer of about €180m for the three years is almost double what Canal + previously paid.

For its 13 first-choice games, previously shown by France's main commercial channel, the free-to-air TF1, Canal + will pay a heavy price: €50 million a year for its 13 first-choice games.

The finer details of Al Jazeera's plans remain unclear.

A source close to the negotiations was quoted by London's The Financial Times as saying: "Al Jazeera still doesn't seem to have a clear business model [for football coverage in France] and we are waiting to see what their offering will be as they haven't yet set up their channel, but they are willing to pay whatever it takes."

Daniel Bilalian, head of sport for the state-owned France Television network, acknowledged that French broadcasters had suffered a major blow.

He told France's 10 Sport website Al Jazeera's tightening grip was a case of "today in France, tomorrow in Europe".

"These people do not present themselves as wanting a return on their money. It is political - they want their country to be known."

Bertrand Meheut, the president of Canal +, told a media seminar in Paris he was unhappy, too.

"From an economic point of view, [Al Jazeera] act unreasonably. The fact is that their priority is Qatar's influence in the world."

At TF1, which loses all live Champions League games unless it reaches agreement to share the screening of the final with Canal +, questions were raised about the prices being paid.

The communications director, Frédéric Ivernel, said the audience in France, where interest wanes as domestic clubs are eliminated, has been falling "and barely makes it past the four-million viewers barrier".

Al Jazeera Sports said its two channels offering Champions League games should be available to about 16 million people and prove cheaper than the €35 a month paid for Canal + subscriptions.

Wladimir Andreff, the honorary president of the International Association of Sports Economists, said he expected influence from the Gulf to grow. "Dubai, Abu Dhabi are also there," he told Reuters. "But they're only getting started, which means the bubble is not quite ready to burst yet … Obviously the trend is likely to spread in Europe."

Uefa welcomed its partnership with Al Jazeera and implicitly challenged suggestions that it could not yet match European broadcasters on quality: "We highly value their production expertise and commitment towards the Uefa Champions League in the Middle East and North Africa and we look forward to being part of their channel development in France."


* Additional reporting by Reuters