Pro League rights-holders seek talks with season on brink of termination
By Tariq Saleh
The domestic broadcasters of the Pro League are seeking talks with Belgian soccer's top-flight and could demand compensation after the league’s board recommended a termination of the remainder of the 2019-20 season yesterday, Sportcal has learned.
Following a conference call between the Pro League’s board of directors, it was agreed that a recommendation will be made to the 16 clubs in the country’s top-tier to cancel the current campaign due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, becoming the first European league to make this unprecedented move.
A cancellation of the season would, of course, present an obvious issue with the league’s rights-holders as they will be unable to broadcast the remaining games, which includes the season-ending championship play-offs featuring the top six teams and determines the league winners.
There is also one round of games in the regular season outstanding.
Telecoms trio Proximus, Telenet and Voo pay a combined €80 million ($86.3 million) per year for the rights and it is believed that the trio have already paid up for this season, their last as Pro League rights-holders.
It has been reported that 17 of the 24 clubs in the country’s top two divisions are in favour of the 2019-20 season being cancelled and it has emerged that at least one of the league’s three broadcasters would seek a reimbursement of its rights fee in this case, although it is unclear which.
However, it is understood that the Pro League has placed a specific clause in its contract with the telecoms companies which states it would not have to pay any money back if the competition is stopped “for a case of force majeure.”
The condition for this is believed to be if it is deemed impossible to continue staging matches.
In a statement issued to Sportcal today, Proximus said it will now seek to find a “constructive solution” with the Pro League.
Proximus said: “We have taken note of the intention of the Pro League to terminate the 2019-2020 season. We are open for discussion with the Pro League in order to find a constructive solution which is acceptable for our customers.”
As well as being a rights-holder, Proximus is also the title sponsor of the Belgian second division, known as the Proximus League.
Telenet is also keen to discuss the issue with the Pro League, although it is prepared to wait until a final decision about the season is made at a general assembly meeting later this month.
Stefaan Kestens, Telenet’s product and acquisitions manager for sport, today told Sportcal: “We have indeed read about the recommendation of Pro League’s board to terminate this season. This still has to be officially validated by Pro League’s general assembly on 15 April. We will look into our options now and hope to discuss this further with the Pro League in the weeks to come.”
Voo did not not respond to Sportcal's request for comment.
Proximus, Telenet and Voo’s existing four-year deal with the league will expire at the end of the season after which Eleven Sports, the international subscription broadcaster, will hold the rights in an agreement worth €103 million per year which runs until the end of the 2024-25 campaign.
The incumbents had tabled an offer of their own worth €102 million annually in an effort to retain the rights.
The Pro League board declared that “it is very unlikely that games with an audience will take place before 30 June” and added that “it is not clear from the current situation whether and when a return to collective training can be expected.”
The Pro League board unanimously decided that it was “not desirable under any scenario” to continue the competition and has advised the clubs to accept the current table as it stands, which would crown Club Brugge as champions.
Soon after this news, it emerged that Uefa, European soccer’s governing body, had issued a letter to its 55 member nations urging them not to cancel any of their respective seasons and to continue to explore ways to conclude their campaigns.
Uefa followed this up by holding a remote meeting with the Pro League and the URBSFA, the Belgian national soccer federation, this morning regarding the plans to terminate the season.
It is believed that Uefa has warned all European leagues that their teams could be excluded from competing in its club competitions, the Champions League and Europa League, if their seasons are not completed.
In a statement, the Pro League said: “During this meeting [with Uefa and the URBSFA], which took place in a constructive atmosphere, the directors of Belgian football explained their public health motives and the economic arguments that formed the basis for yesterday's recommendation by the board of directors of the Pro League.
“They also indicated that they would not agree with an approach that forces leagues to continue their competitions in the current general health crisis, under penalty of exclusion from next season's European club competitions.
“Both the URBSFA and the Pro League are great supporters of solidarity within European football. It was precisely from this solidarity that our representatives argued for a policy that would make it possible to tackle this situation while respecting the specific context of each league.”
Another meeting between the three parties has been scheduled for next Friday.