beIN's piracy war may threaten income for competitions

LONDON • The world's biggest sports rights holder, beIN Corporation, says it will spend less to broadcast major competitions unless the industry does more to stop a rival network stealing its content.

The Qatar-based pay-TV company says the competing outfit BeoutQ is backed by Qatar's regional rival Saudi Arabia, which is waging a diplomatic and trade war against its smaller Gulf Arab neighbour.

The Saudi government has denied having any links to BeoutQ.

beIN executives said the actions of BeoutQ and other pirate outfits that are targeting its customers in Europe, the Middle East and beyond make it less profitable to show big events.

The sports and entertainment network has already conceded Spanish rights for LaLiga football to Telefonica SA and may not bid at all for rights in some Middle East countries, where it has been hit hardest by BeoutQ.

That could deal a significant blow to some of the world's wealthiest competitions.

beIN holds the Middle East and North Africa rights for competitions including the 2022 World Cup, the English Premier League, Wimbledon and the National Basketball Association.

  • $3.5b

  • Amount beIN alleges to have been stolen by rival BeoutQ.

Its EPL deal is worth US$140 million (S$192.8 million) per season, according to sports rights specialist publication Sportcal. That is around 10 per cent of the league's estimated overseas income.

"There's piracy going on here at an industrial level," said Tom Keaveny, beIN's managing director.

He added that beIN would trim its bids in upcoming contract renewals and prioritise deals with "right holders that are working with us in a much more proactive way" to combat piracy.

beIN's threat could spur powerful sports organisations to put extra pressure on the Saudis.

But, while some sports bodies have publicly called for the Saudis to act against BeoutQ, others have been less direct in their criticism.

Liberty Media, Formula One's owners, spoke out against the bootleg channel in June, saying it took intellectual property infringement "extremely seriously", without mentioning Saudi Arabia.

beIN said it tried to get Fifa to take more decisive action against Saudi Arabia during the World Cup in Russia, without success.

In response, a Fifa spokesman said that the organisation had taken steps to prepare for legal action in Saudi Arabia and is working alongside other sports rights owners that have been affected to protect their interests.

BeoutQ channels are distributed online and over the Arabsat satellite network based in Riyadh and the name appears to be a caricature of beIN, with a Q for Qatar tacked at the end.

beIN said its broadcast rights are worth around US$15 billion (S$20.7 billion) and that BeoutQ has stolen business representing at least 17 per cent of the revenue it was expecting this year.

It added that it has evidence that both Saudi citizens and officials are linked to the piracy operation and is seeking at least US$1 billion in damages via an international arbitration. A case with the World Trade Organisation has also been filed.

Daniel Markham, beIN's director for sports content, revealed that it had already renewed some rights at a 50 per cent discount.

"At the end of the day, why would broadcasters pay for rights that can't be protected?" he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 16, 2018, with the headline 'beIN's piracy war may threaten income for competitions'. Print Edition | Subscribe