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Al Jazeera Zeroes in on Sports Rights

Will Al Jazeera change the world of global sports the way it changed global news?

In mid-July, Spain’s El Economista reported that the Qatar-based network was putting the finishing touches on a bid to buy Mediapro, which owns rights to most Spanish soccer clubs, including Real Madrid and Barcelona.

It’s the latest move into sports by BeIN Sport, a subsidiary of the newsie’s Al Jazeera Sports Media Network. Last year BeIN Sport bought broadcast rights to all U.S. qualifying matches outside the States for the 2014 World Cup (terms of the deal were not revealed). Its Gallic BeIN channels air French Ligue 1 soccer matches on Gaul’s Canal Plus.

BeIN’s American channel also owns rights to Spain’s La Liga and Italy’s Serie A, as well as all South American and Concacaf World Cup qualifiers, except Mexico.

Al Jazeera, funded by Qatar’s government, has deep pockets and changed the news biz as it paid top dollar to set up bureaus, hire key personnel from BBC and CNN, and make savvy carriage deals for its attractive programming.

As it makes other moves — Al Jazeera paid $500 million earlier this year for Al Gore’s Current TV to gain carriage in 41 million U.S. homes — it is focusing on sports. In Italy, for instance, Al Jazeera is rumored to be making a play for soccer. Sky Italia (which paid $743.5 million per year to broadcast matches of all 20 teams) and Mediaset ($352 million for 12 teams) have rights to Serie A matches in Italy through 2015.

Deals like the Mediapro bid are risky. “Al Jazeera could lose its shirt,” said one analyst. But in Europe, rights deals in sports, especially soccer, are often made for strategic gain, not immediate financial profit, and Al Jazeera’s top execs have said they don’t expect instant gains.

Many, including the likes of Rupert Murdoch, ESPN and British Telecom, will be watching closely to see what the upstart network does next.

(— Bill Edelstein contributed to this report.)

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