BeIN to sue AFC after Saudi Arabia cut from exclusive MENA deal
By Jonathan Rest
BeIN Media Group, the Qatar-based, international pay-television operator, is to sue the Asian Football Confederation, after soccer's regional governing body today unilaterally removed the territory of Saudi Arabia from the broadcaster's exclusive Middle East and North Africa contract, in a continuing battle over piracy that has become deeply entrenched in the region's political landscape.
The AFC said it will now stream the matches involving Saudi Arabian teams played in Saudi Arabia in AFC competitions free of charge on its geo-blocked digital channels, AFC Champions League Facebook Live and AFC YouTube, beginning with this evening's Champions League clash between Al Hilal and Qatar's Al Duhail in Riyadh.
The AFC claimed the move is designed to help achieve its aim of “protecting the rights of its commercial and broadcast partners and to tackle attempts to illegally exploit those rights wherever it occurs.”
However, an error with the geoblocking meant much of the Al Hilal game was available to watch on AFC YouTube globally, while Sportcal has also learned the match was shown on Saudi 24, a linear channel available throughout the Middle East and North Africa (pictured).
BeIN can technically still broadcast in Saudi Arabia to customers with its set-top boxes, but the Saudi Arabian government has banned the company from operating in the country.
Every game of the recent AFC Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates - BeIN holds exclusive rights in MENA - was pirated by beoutQ, the Saudi Arabia-backed illegal platform.
A month ago, the AFC said it had appointed a group of intellectual property experts to continue the fight against TV piracy, having earlier publicly named beoutQ as having stolen its content.
Today's decision by the AFC appears to blame BeIN for not protecting its content, but a source close to the issue told Sportcal today: "The AFC has shown it is willing to cave in to beoutQ and reward this theft of content of the past two years. It has been a remarkable 12 hours in the world of beoutQ."
In a statement, BeIN said: "BeIN is set to launch a major international legal dispute against the Confederation for material breach of its multi-million dollar broadcast agreement. Nearly 18 months ago, Saudi Arabia unlawfully and overnight forced BeIN, the legitimate pay-TV broadcaster for all AFC competitions in MENA, out of the country.
"Rather than tackling Saudi Arabia’s illegal measures against its legitimate broadcaster, the AFC – in apparent collusion with the Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF) – has unilaterally decided to live-stream Saudi-related matches into Saudi Arabia geo-blocked on the AFC’s Facebook Live and YouTube channels. In what is a clear political move by the AFC seemingly in full collaboration with SAFF (which pre-emptively announced the AFC’s plans 24 hours earlier), the Confederation’s decision undermines the central condition of its regional broadcast agreement with BeIN, namely the grant of exclusive rights."
BeIN said it will continue to broadcast the AFC Champions League across the MENA region.
Yousef Al-Obaidly, chief executive of BeIN, said: "The AFC’s decision is not only a self-harming commercial decision and a clear political play with Saudi Arabia, but most damagingly it will impact rights holders across sports and entertainment around the world. There is now no guaranteed protection of intellectual property in the region due to the AFC in effect endorsing Saudi Arabia’s theft of world sport and wholesale disregard for the international rule of law."
The same source told Sportcal: "The AFC has set a dangerous precedent. What does this mean for the other 24 countries in MENA? If one country breaks away, it leaves MENA as a region where it is impossible to provide premium exclusive sports content. And ultimately, that means the value of the rights falls."
The SAFF, unsurprisingly, welcomed the AFC’s decision to "break the BeIN monopoly," saying BeIN had failed to obtain the necessary licences to air AFC matches in the country, and called on other sports organisations to follow suit.
It added: "The SAFF appealed to all international federations to take similar measures and decisions that would maintain seamless transmission of this game to the fans and help desist all from using the game for political purposes.
"We hope that Arab federations, in particular, will take similar measures to ensure sports are in conformity with all norms, laws and principles of competition while also combating monopoly.
"At the same time, SAFF stressed that it is keen to continue working with the rights holders and official authorities to provide platforms to would enable Saudi and expatriate viewers to enjoy the competitions, without sports being a casualty."
AFC elections The AFC's decision comes ahead of next month's congress in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where Bahrain's Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim Khalifa is seeking a third term in office. He faces competition from UAE's Mohammed Khalfan Al Romaithi and Qatar’s Saoud Al Mohannadi.
There is a growing feeling within the BeIN camp that Sheikh Salman has led this action in a bid to gain the support of the powerful SAFF ahead of the election.
The beoutQ controversy is playing out against the backdrop of a bitter political and economic dispute between Qatar and other Middle East nations, particularly Saudi Arabia, with the small Gulf state having repeatedly and vehemently refuted allegations that it supports terrorism in the region.
BeoutQ’s piracy of BeIN’s broadcasts has previously affected a wide range of sports properties, including soccer’s Fifa World Cup, Uefa Champions League, English Premier League, Spanish LaLiga, Italian Serie A, German Bundesliga and French Ligue 1, plus the organisers of tennis’ grand slams, the men's ATP and women's WTA, and the FIA, the governing body for motor sports, including Formula 1.
Indeed, just last month BeIN said it would not continue to broadcast Formula 1 in MENA, in protest at the piracy issues it is facing.
Worldwide broadcast and sponsorship rights to the AFC Asian Cup and Champions League, outside of MENA, are held at present by the Lagardère Sports agency in an eight-year, $1-billion agreement that expires in 2020.
The new contract, from 2021 to 2028, with Wuhan DDMC Culture Co., the Chinese sports and entertainment firm, and Fortis Sports, a special purpose vehicle set by former Team Marketing senior executives Patrick Murphy and David Tyler, is worth more than double the present deal, and also excludes MENA, where BeIN had been prioritising a renewal.