AFC inflames dispute with BeIN by carving out rights package for Saudi Arabia
Soccer - 08 May 2019
The Asian Football Confederation has carved out a package of rights for its top competitions for sale in Saudi Arabia alone for the 2021-2024 cycle, in a move that seems certain to inflame already strained relations with BeIN Media Group, the Qatar-based international pay-television operator that previously held the rights in a pan-regional deal.
In March, BeIN said that it was suing the AFC after it 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.
BeIN has declined to comment on the AFC’s latest move “for legal reasons” but is thought to view it as another in a series of politically-motivated moves, following the AFC’s own admission that the reason it is no longer offering its media rights on a pan-regional basis is “the current geopolitical situation in key markets in the MENA region.”
An invitation to tender issued yesterday by the AFC includes the AFC Asian Cup and the Asian qualifying competition for the Fifa World Cup in Qatar in 2022. Also included are the rights to the region’s flagship club competitions - the AFC Champions League and AFC Cup.
The AFC said that the tender is restricted to broadcasters and media companies that:
• “have the capacity to encrypt, geo-block or otherwise limit reception of their transmissions to the Territory of the KSA [Kingdom of Saudi Arabia] only;
• “hold a valid licence from the relevant governmental authorities in the KSA to operate television services in the KSA and/or distribute audiovisual content in the KSA; and
• “have the capability and relevant authorisations to provide first class host broadcast production services and deliver the international live television feed for all AFC matches taking place in the KSA.”
However, any attempt by the AFC to unilaterally appoint a new broadcaster for the territory seems certain to be contested by BeIN, which claims that its existing broadcast licence agreement means that the AFC must offer BeIN the right to match any other offer it receives for the rights for the 2021 to 2024 period.
Since removing Saudi Arabia from BeIN’s contract in March, the AFC has been streaming matches involving Saudi Arabian teams played in Saudi Arabia in AFC competitions free of charge on AFC Champions League Facebook Live and AFC YouTube, its own, allegedly geo-blocked, digital channels.
However, the matches, beginning with the AFC Champions League clash between Al Hilal and Qatar’s Al Duhail in March, are said to have been available via beoutQ, the pirate broadcaster that is at the root of the dispute between BeIN and the AFC, and on Saudi 24, the Saudi-controlled, -owned and -based linear channel.
In a statement issued in March, when it announced its planned legal action against the AFC, BeIN claimed: “In caving into Saudi Arabia’s illegal actions against beIN and effectively endorsing Saudi Arabia’s notorious ongoing piracy operation beoutQ, the AFC is not only in material breach of its multi-million dollar broadcast agreement with beIN, but its actions threaten the business model that sports rights holders all around the world rely on.”
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.
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 up 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.