World Cup inflames Spanish b'casters

MADRID — Alleged foul play, curve-balls, rivalry: Spain’s broadcaster battle over World Cup coverage has delivered high-class drama — the Cup itself could prove quite an anti-climax.

Tyro terrestrial broadcaster La Sexta, which bowed in March, is using the game to draw new auds, paying a sizable E90 million ($115.2 million) for all Spanish TV rights.

On June 1, it sub-licensed Spanish team game rights to rival Cuatro.

Terrestrials Telecinco and Antena 3 announced they would sue La Sexta plus Cuatro’s owner, Sogecable, contending the sub-licensing deal should have been decided by public competition.

By June 3, La Sexta was mulling legal action against Cuatro over allegedly misleading World Cup marketing, implying Cuatro had all the World Cup.

Last week, Spanish courts threw out preliminary injunction requests filed by Antena 3 and Telecinco to halt Cuatro broadcasting Spain’s games.

The brouhaha is hardly a one-off for soccer: the same passion that excites crowds seems often to inflame broadcasters — and with good reason. For broadcasters, the World Cup, like soccer at large, is a funny old game: it’s big business, but not always good business and certainly riskier business than most content dealings.

For instance, even though La Sexta sold pay TV rights to half the games to Sogecable, reportedly for $38.4 million, while Cuatro paid La Sexta $25.6 million to simulcast Spain’s games, plus the opener, semi-finals and final, “La Sexta is likely to make a loss in advertising revenues,” says one analyst. In 2002 Antena 3 bought World Cup rights for around $38 million. Spain lost in the quarter finals and TV ad revs fell well short.

That may be by the by for La Sexta, which has to persuade Spaniards to adjust their TV sets to receive its signal.

“La Sexta’s paid a hefty sum for the rights to put itself on the map. If it’s trying to persuade people to tune their sets, there’s probably no better way of doing it. But the move may backfire if key matches are on Cuatro, which is part of a far bigger media group,” says Screen Digest senior analyst Tim Westcott.

But the World Cup lasts just one month. For all the talk of the World Cup as a huge entertainment event, the real money in Spanish TV soccer remains the Spanish League.

Sexta shareholder Mediapro has already offered Barcelona soccer club a reported $163.7 million a season for league match rights from 2008.

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