Arab countries move to tackle the Qatari monopoly of sports’ broadcast

Sunday 13/08/2017
Microphones of the beIN Sports television channel during the UEFA Champions League semi-final first leg football match between Monaco and Juventus at Stade Louis II Stadium in Monaco, last May. (AFP)

Cairo- The diplomatic crisis with Doha has seen several Arab countries block Qa­tari satellite channels, in­cluding the popular beIN Sports network. Egypt’s free-to-air ONTV network, which recently ac­quired exclusive rights to broadcast Egyptian Premier League and Egypt Cup football matches, said the time was ripe to expand and take over coverage of regional and interna­tional sports.

“It is about time this monopoly [by beIN Sports] came to an end,” said Seif Zaher, a member of the ONTV board of directors. “I think some real steps are now being taken to end this monopoly.”

Doha-based beIN Sports, a succes­sor to the Al Jazeera Sports network, has been a mainstay in the homes of many football-loving Arabs. Charg­ing viewers $18 a month for a sub­scription has allowed beIN to secure exclusive broadcasting rights in the Arab Middle East for major football leagues, including the English Pre­mier League, the Spanish La Liga, the Italian Serie A and the German Bundesliga. This has secured the networks’ popularity.

However, the political dispute be­tween Qatar and Egypt, Saudi Ara­bia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in June opened the door for other Arab networks to chal­lenge beIN’s stranglehold on sports broadcasts. Doha, which stands ac­cused of financing terrorism, paid hundreds of millions of dollars to acquire exclusive broadcast rights in the Middle East but, given the deci­sion to block broadcasts from Qatar, subscribers in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain are unable to watch the games.

“I think the crisis over Qatar’s fi­nancing of terrorism should moti­vate other Arab countries into pre­senting alternatives to beIN to end its domination,” said Egyptian sports commentator Essam Shaltout.

There are signs that Saudi, Egyp­tian and Emirate broadcast net­works are seeking to do just that.

Saudi Arabia blocked beIN on June 12. A few days later, Saudi Me­dia City Chairman Muflih al-Hafatah released a plan for the launch of PBS Sports, which he said would be the “largest” sports TV network in the Arab world. He reassured viewers that PBS Sports would seek to be a free-to-air channel, not a paid sub­scription service like beIN.

The new network would be oper­ated by professionals from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Iraq, Bah­rain, Algeria, Morocco and Libya, Hafatah said.

In the UAE, similar moves have been made to end Qatar’s strangle­hold on sports broadcasting. Abu Dhabi is expected to demand broad­cast rights of the FIFA Club World Cup matches in the Emirates in De­cember, Emirati media reported.

It will also move to prevent the Qatari pay operator from purchasing broadcast rights to the AFC Asian Cup, to take place in 2019 in the UAE.

Egyptian officials have taken con­crete action by snatching sports competitions’ broadcast rights from the Qataris. The owner of ONTV net­work, steel production baron Ahmed Abu Hashima, pur­chased 51% of a major me­dia agency that will look to secure the rights to broadcast international sports events.

In September 2016, the agency, called Presentation Sports, allocated $750 mil­lion and raised an­other $450 million to purchase the broadcast rights of the African Cup of Nations through 2028.

However, the Confederation of African Football (CAF) selected French sports and entertainment agency La­gardere Sports, which has previ­ously sold the broadcast rights to beIN, but whose bid was $200 mil­lion below the Egyptian company’s. Presentation Sports was considering legal proceedings against then-CAF President Issa Hayatou, alleging cor­ruption for rejecting the Egyptian company’s higher bid.

Presentation Sports is expected later this year to seek broadcasting rights for Italy’s Serie A football, having already secured the broad­cast rights to the Arab Club Cham­pionship, which concluded August 2 in the Egyptian coastal city of Al­exandria.

The agency allocated the broad­cast rights of the championship to ONTV Sport and Abu Dhabi Sports, both free-to-air channels. The two channels signed a cooperation agreement in November for the free exchange of programmes.

Zaher said the efforts by Egyptian, Saudi and Emirate networks were a promising start to ending beIN’s monopolisation of sports broadcasts in the Arab world.

“We know we will face tough challenges to end these monopolies but we are more than capable of doing this,” Zaher said. “One network cannot be left to be the only window through which hundreds of millions of people see sports events. This must end.”