Egypt forces Qatar’s beIN to back down on World Cup games

Qatar’s beIN agreed to broadcast 22 matches of the 2018 FIFA World Cup on its free-to-air channel.
Sunday 17/06/2018
Egyptian fans watch the World Cup 2018 match between Egypt and Uruguay at a cafe in Cairo. (Reuters)
On the edge of their seats. Egyptian fans watch the World Cup 2018 match between Egypt and Uruguay at a cafe in Cairo. (Reuters)

CAIRO - Pay-TV service beIN agreed to broadcast 22 matches of the 2018 FIFA World Cup on its free-to-air channel after Egypt pressured the Qatar-owned network.

Egypt’s National Media Authority said it would broadcast the matches on state TV to allow viewers in Egypt to see the national team participate in the world’s most watched sports event.

“This is the first time that we have made our content so widely available as we realise how significant and unifying this tournament is for our region,” beIN Chairman Nasser al-Khelaifi said in a release.

The subscription service beIN Sports was awarded exclusive broadcast rights to the 2018 and 2022 World Cups by FIFA across the Middle East and North Africa. However, a diplomatic crisis between Qatar and several other Arab countries, including Egypt, placed regional viewership of the World Cup in question.

The issue dates to a July 2017 decision by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates to cut diplomatic ties with Qatar, accusing Doha of supporting terrorism.

Relations between Cairo and Doha have been tense since the 2013 ouster of Islamist President Muhammad Morsi. Qatar-backed media strongly criticised the situation in Egypt and refused to recognise the legitimacy of the post-Morsi authorities.

When it applied for permission to broadcast World Cup matches, Egypt’s National Media Authority did not address beIN directly but sought to act through FIFA. The authority offered to pay an undisclosed fee to be allowed to broadcast the matches.

FIFA’s lack of reply led the authority to refer the matter to the Egyptian Competition Authority (ECA), which ruled that state television had the right to broadcast the matches and accused the Qatari network of pursuing “monopolistic practices.”

“These practices cause harm to the interests of Egyptian consumers,” said ECA leader Amir Nabil. “We have a strong legal backing for our decision to allow state television to broadcast the matches.”

This is not the first time beIN has run afoul of Egypt’s competition authorities. The channel was fined $22 million this year for breaching anti-trust laws in its coverage of the 2017 African Cup of Nations.

Before the decision to broadcast matches on beIN’s free-to-air channel, subscribers would have been required to purchase a special decoder for $89 and pay a fee of $90 just to watch the World Cup, Egyptian media said. The regular beIN subscription fee in Egypt is $180 annually.

“It has been noted that granting the full range of rights as a single bundled package exclusively to one single entity for such an extended period of time is contrary to FIFA’s established practice in other countries and regions worldwide,” an ECA letter to FIFA said.

The Egyptian national football team qualified for the World Cup this year for the first time in 28 years, one reason why football-mad Egyptians are so desperate to ensure that they can watch the tournament. The Pharaohs lost their first game of the tournament Uruguay, 1-0, on June 15.

The broadcast of football matches is huge business for coffee shop and restaurant owners who set up large screens to attract fans and often offer drinks and food at inflated prices.

Egyptian authorities have placed large screens on public squares and outside state institutions to allow fans to see the matches for free.

However, with the matches now being aired on beIN’s free-to-air channels, Egyptians can watch them at home.

“There are millions of older football lovers who cannot rub shoulders with other fans at the coffee shops or on the squares to watch the matches,” said TV host Ahmed Moussa, an advocate of the initial decision to air the matches on state television. “This is a very positive decision that will make everybody happy.”

Egypt has been trying to end beIN’s monopoly on the broadcast rights of sports competitions in Africa and the Middle East region for some time. Last year, Egyptian businessmen founded a media network with the aim of competing for the broadcast rights of sports competitions in the two regions. The company sought to snatch the World Cup matches broadcast rights from beIN but the Qatari network won the bid from FIFA.

Before beIN’s decision to broadcast the matches for free, many non-subscribers to beIN’s sports package were searching for ways to get around the Qatari monopoly. A small device that would allow users to pirate the beIN feed that sold for the equivalent of $2 and is called a beIN connector has reportedly recorded major sales.

Speaking about the Egyptian preparations to broadcast the matches on state TV, Nabil said that the most important thing was to safeguard the right of Egyptians to watch sports events in the future.

“The Qatari network has a contract with FIFA that lasts until 2032,” Nabil said. “So, if we do not take our right into our own hands now, we will lose it for many years to come.”