Politically-charged soccer rights dispute escalates in Gulf
Escalating a sports television rights dispute, a Qatar-owned broadcaster accused Asian soccer leadership of breaking contracts and deciding to stream games for free in Saudi Arabia.
BeIN Sports said it intends to seek arbitration against the Asian Football Confederation under the terms of its contract. The networks claims a breach of a multi-million dollar agreement to broadcast games exclusively across the Middle East, including the continent’s Champions League.
The AFC said it will use its Facebook and YouTube channels to broadcast Saudi-hosted soccer games in AFC competitions, an effort to protect broadcast partners and “tackle attempts to illegally exploit those rights wherever it occurs.”
Bootlegged feeds from BeIN of top international soccer games have been pirated by Saudi Arabia-based BeoutQ since 2017. Saudi authorities declared BeIN illegal in the kingdom, a proxy battle in the nation’s wider economic and diplomatic boycott that was launched nearly two years ago.
BeIN will likely file for arbitration in Singapore. The network claimed the confederation’s actions threaten the business model that sports rights holders rely on worldwide.
“The AFC’s decision to livestream directly into Saudi Arabia on the AFC’s own digital platforms is a material breach of our multimillion dollar regional broadcast agreement and we will immediately be launching a major international dispute to recover damages and protect our position,” BeIN chief executive officer Yousef Al-Obaidly said. “The AFC’s decision is not only a self-harming commercial decision and a clear political play with Saudi Arabia, but most damagingly it will impact rights holders across sports and entertainment around the world.”
Saudi Arabia’s soccer federation said the decision amounts to canceling “the BeIN sport monopoly over all Asian Football Confederation competitions.”
The AFC announcement came less than four weeks before the confederation’s presidential election. Incumbent Sheikh Salman of Bahrain faces candidates from Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, which is supported by Saudi Arabia.
The format of the 2022 World Cup also is up for discussion this week. FIFA is exploring expanding the tournament from 32 to 48 teams and adding one or more countries to Qatar, selected as host in 2010.
A FIFA feasibility study said Qatar would not be forced to share games with Bahrain, Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates unless those countries restore diplomatic and travel ties with Doha. That leaves Kuwait and Oman as options for an expanded tournament.