Arab countries move to tackle the Qatari monopoly of sports’ broadcast
The diplomatic crisis with Doha has seen several Arab countries block Qatari satellite channels, including the popular beIN Sports network. Egypt’s free-to-air ONTV network, which recently acquired exclusive rights to broadcast Egyptian Premier League and Egypt Cup football matches, said the time was ripe to expand and take over coverage of regional and international sports.
“It is about time this monopoly [by beIN Sports] came to an end,” said Seif Zaher, a member of the ONTV board of directors. “I think some real steps are now being taken to end this monopoly.”
Doha-based beIN Sports, a successor to the Al Jazeera Sports network, has been a mainstay in the homes of many football-loving Arabs. Charging viewers $18 a month for a subscription has allowed beIN to secure exclusive broadcasting rights in the Arab Middle East for major football leagues, including the English Premier League, the Spanish La Liga, the Italian Serie A and the German Bundesliga. This has secured the networks’ popularity.
However, the political dispute between Qatar and Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in June opened the door for other Arab networks to challenge beIN’s stranglehold on sports broadcasts. Doha, which stands accused of financing terrorism, paid hundreds of millions of dollars to acquire exclusive broadcast rights in the Middle East but, given the decision to block broadcasts from Qatar, subscribers in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain are unable to watch the games.
“I think the crisis over Qatar’s financing of terrorism should motivate other Arab countries into presenting alternatives to beIN to end its domination,” said Egyptian sports commentator Essam Shaltout.
There are signs that Saudi, Egyptian and Emirate broadcast networks are seeking to do just that.
Saudi Arabia blocked beIN on June 12. A few days later, Saudi Media City Chairman Muflih al-Hafatah released a plan for the launch of PBS Sports, which he said would be the “largest” sports TV network in the Arab world. He reassured viewers that PBS Sports would seek to be a free-to-air channel, not a paid subscription service like beIN.
The new network would be operated by professionals from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Iraq, Bahrain, Algeria, Morocco and Libya, Hafatah said.
In the UAE, similar moves have been made to end Qatar’s stranglehold on sports broadcasting. Abu Dhabi is expected to demand broadcast rights of the FIFA Club World Cup matches in the Emirates in December, Emirati media reported.
It will also move to prevent the Qatari pay operator from purchasing broadcast rights to the AFC Asian Cup, to take place in 2019 in the UAE.
Egyptian officials have taken concrete action by snatching sports competitions’ broadcast rights from the Qataris. The owner of ONTV network, steel production baron Ahmed Abu Hashima, purchased 51% of a major media agency that will look to secure the rights to broadcast international sports events.
In September 2016, the agency, called Presentation Sports, allocated $750 million and raised another $450 million to purchase the broadcast rights of the African Cup of Nations through 2028.
However, the Confederation of African Football (CAF) selected French sports and entertainment agency Lagardere Sports, which has previously sold the broadcast rights to beIN, but whose bid was $200 million below the Egyptian company’s. Presentation Sports was considering legal proceedings against then-CAF President Issa Hayatou, alleging corruption for rejecting the Egyptian company’s higher bid.
Presentation Sports is expected later this year to seek broadcasting rights for Italy’s Serie A football, having already secured the broadcast rights to the Arab Club Championship, which concluded August 2 in the Egyptian coastal city of Alexandria.
The agency allocated the broadcast rights of the championship to ONTV Sport and Abu Dhabi Sports, both free-to-air channels. The two channels signed a cooperation agreement in November for the free exchange of programmes.
Zaher said the efforts by Egyptian, Saudi and Emirate networks were a promising start to ending beIN’s monopolisation of sports broadcasts in the Arab world.
“We know we will face tough challenges to end these monopolies but we are more than capable of doing this,” Zaher said. “One network cannot be left to be the only window through which hundreds of millions of people see sports events. This must end.”
Ibrahim Ouf is an Egyptian journalist based in Cairo.