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Al Jazeera Aims to Score with Soccer

Following its move into France, Arab TV group mulls buying up pricey rights in Spain

MADRID — Thirteen centuries ago, Arabs invaded Spain, bringing civilization. Now, they could be invading again, bringing soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo.

Qatar-based Al Jazeera has initiated “informal contacts” with Barcelona-based Mediapro to explore the possibility of acquiring Spanish soccer league TV rights from September 2015, according to local news website El Confidencial Digital.

This is big news for Spain, but has wider implications for other parts of the world. Some years ago, Al Jazeera made a series of aggressive moves in the news business, quickly building its global brand. Now Al Jazeera, which has plenty of money behind it, has shaken up French sports coverage, so established players are watching what happens next in Spain.

Incumbents fear that Al Jazeera will not follow market logic; in other words, it would be willing to take a loss to establish itself in the market.

“Al Jazeera has a longterm business model. It can’t possibly be breaking even on its soccer rights investment in France,” said Francois Godard, at Enders Analysis.

In France and Spain, “the fear for Canal Plus is that Al Jazeera will throw zillions at the next soccer rights auction, destroying the Canal Plus business model,” Godard added.

Al Jazeera could not be reached for clarification on any talks in Spain. But conversations, however informal, between Al Jazeera and Mediapro are likely, as the latter produces and arranges transmission of French soccer games for Al Jazeera Sports Media Network’s BeIN sports channels. These air on giant paybox Canal Plus, as part of its satellite offer.

If Al Jazeera does move into Spain, it looks set to shake up the sports rights market, which is dominated by Mediapro and pay-TV platform Canal Plus, majority owned by Madrid-based media conglom Prisa.

Mediapro owns rights to most Spanish clubs’ league games, including Real Madrid and Barcelona, paying close to €600 million ($770 million) a year. It almost certainly won’t be able to afford that much again when the rights expire in 2015.

El Confidencial suggested Mediapro might ally with BeIN from the 2015-16 season to produce the transmission of Spanish league soccer games, but not own the rights.

Alternatively, one analyst conjectured that Al Jazeera could pact with Prisa TV, which bought soccer pay-TV rights from Mediapro through 2015 for Canal Plus Spain. It could leverage the dominant distribution platform for soccer rather than create its own pay-TV channel.

Prisa has debts of $3.95 billion, and with subs at Canal Plus languishing at 1.72 million year-end 2012, Prisa took a $377.5 million impairment charge on the future prospects of its pay-TV business in its 2012 results. It could well be open to an approach from Al Jazeera.

Time will tell. Qatar will host the 2022 soccer FIFA World Cup.

In a show of just how far Qatar has already come as a soccer grandee, however, on Tuesday night, soccer stars David Beckham and Lionel Messi played in a crunch quarter final of the UEFA Champions League, pitching Paris Saint Germain against Barcelona.

Qatar owns Paris Saint Germain, France’s top-ranking club; its Qatar Foundation sponsors Barcelona. It received a one-hour post-match re-transmission on BeIN in France.

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