Football: Bold bootlegging a horror show for beIN

Engineers in an anti-piracy monitoring room at beIN Sports headquarters work to prevent a hacked feed of the channel from being disseminated throughout Saudi Arabia In Qatar on May 2, 2018.
Engineers in an anti-piracy monitoring room at beIN Sports headquarters work to prevent a hacked feed of the channel from being disseminated throughout Saudi Arabia In Qatar on May 2, 2018.PHOTO: NYTIMES

DOHA • What do you do when your multi-billion dollar sports network has been stolen? Executives at Qatar's beIN Sports pondered that question last week as they stared at a bank of screens inside their sprawling headquarters.

On the night of May 2, the network's main channel - which functions as the ESPN of the Middle East - televised the return leg of the Champions League semi-final between Roma and Liverpool.

They watched the beIN Sports feed as Liverpool scored to take an early lead. Then they watched the same live play 10 seconds later on beoutQ, a bootlegging operation seemingly based in Saudi Arabia.

The pirate service's roots lie in the bitter political dispute between Qatar and a coalition of countries led by its largest neighbours, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

That night, like every night for the past few months, 10 beoutQ channels were live, almost all of them screening the ostensibly exclusive and very expensive content of beIN, which owns some of the most valuable sports rights in France, Spain and Turkey.

The coalition countries have subjected Qatar to a punishing blockade during the past year.

  • US$200k

    Estimated cost - S$267, 950 - beIN spent investigating pirate service beoutQ.

Now, one month before the start of the World Cup, the world's most-watched sporting event and beIN's signature property, the piracy operation is positioned to illicitly deliver the tournament's 64 games to much of the Middle East.

Qatar, despite abundant resources, has been powerless to stop it.

Decoder boxes embossed with the beoutQ logo have for months been available across Saudi Arabia and are now for sale in other Arabic-speaking countries, with a one-year subscription costing US$100 (S$134).

As the Champions League semi-final unfolded last week, Tom Keaveny, beIN's managing director for the Middle East, gathered with a half-dozen beIN engineers in a small room known as "The Lab" with a mandate: Disrupt beoutQ.

So far they have not been successful. Keaveny said beoutQ's operation "takes industrial-scale knowledge and ability and multi-million dollar funding".

"This isn't someone in their bedroom," he added.

Officials at beIN say they have spent more than US$200,000 investigating the bootlegging and traced the beoutQ signal to the Riyadh-based satellite provider Arabsat.

Saudi Arabia is the company's largest investor. Government officials in Saudi Arabia and its embassy did not respond to messages seeking comment.

BeIN has committed several billion dollars to secure exclusive rights to the biggest sports events, often paying far more than market value to ensure supremacy in the Arab world and beyond.

The network has become a national emblem for the emirate, making the piracy of its broadcasts especially humiliating.

"The name beoutQ is totally designed to intimidate," said Mohammad Al-Subaie, executive director of commercial affairs for the beIN Media Group. "Being a Qatari, I really feel angry about it."

The beoutQ website features all major beIN content, including football from around the world, National Basketball Association games and marquee tennis tournaments. And beoutQ's backers, emboldened by their ability to steal content at will, have started to add content owned by other broadcasters beyond beIN, including Ultimate Fighting Championship mixed martial arts fights.

"They've (beoutQ) created a brand without any acquisitions," beIN director of programming Duncan Walkinshaw said.

"It's quite extraordinary and very wrong. We're investing our time and effort, and someone is stealing it and making it their own."

NY TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 11, 2018, with the headline 'Bold bootlegging a horror show for beIN'. Print Edition | Subscribe