Al Jazeera Sports has acquired the exclusive TV broadcasting rights to the English Premier League (EPL) for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Agreement means Al Jazeera will be the sole broadcaster to provide access to all 380 Premier League matches for the next three seasons (2013-2016) across different media platforms and devices. The deal covers 23 MENA countries and the first broadcast will kick off on the 17th of August 2013.
Al Jazeera agreed the deal with the Media agency MP & Silva which was awarded the rights back in January. Financial details were not disclosed but local reports claim that MP & Silva had unofficially revealed back in January that the cost of acquiring the EPL rights for the MENA region was close to $300m.
Al Jazeera Sports broadcasts fourteen sports channels, three of them in HD. The deal covers the following countries : Algeria, Bahrain, Chad, Djibouti, Egypt , Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.
This deal was no surprise. Rumours that the Doha-based operator had won the exclusive rights for all 380 matches were circulated in satellite forums and relevant websites from as early as February and a screen shot taken from the Al Jazeera Sports HD2 channel early in April noted that Al Jazeera's subscribers would have the opportunity to enjoy Premier League soccer until 2016 from next season. Another indication that Al Jazeera Sports had ambitious plans from this autumn came in April when it inked a deal with OMD (Media planning and buying) and TBWARAAD (creative agency) in order to boost its communications and marketing campaigns and to further enhance its image as the leading sports broadcaster across the MENA region. Finally, over the last two months, a number of Arab sports journalists and commentators have re-located from Abu Dhabi (the base of the ADMC satellite pay TV operator which holds the rights for the 2010-2013 seasons) to Doha.
Sports content, and especially international soccer, is very attractive to the majority of male TV viewers in the region and forms the most sought after premium content for pay TV operators. Even free TV broadcasters vie to acquire the rights for some major soccer tournaments, especially when Arab teams are competing. For a free broadcaster, soccer content is translated into high performance in terms of TV ratings. In the UAE, where the first in any MENA country reliable TV ratings system (tview) is established and running from October 2012, the figures indicate that a soccer event, the Gulf Cup Final, is one of the two single most watched TV programs together with the reality-show Arab Idol.
The English Premier League (EPL) is the most popular European soccer league in the Arab world and is also popular withex-pats residing in the Gulf States. Until 2010 it was Showtime, the satellite pay TV operator jointly owned by Kuwait-backed KIPCO and CBS Corporation, which controlled the EPL rights, but that same year the Abu Dhabi Government-backed ADMC stormed the market, grabbing the rights for the the high price of $300m for the three-year period (2010-2013). However, the acquisition failed to boost ADMC subscriptions to any substantial level as the Abu Dhabi-based operator has struggled the last three years in order to attract less 160,000 customers according to IHS MENA Intelligence data.
ADMC's poor performance is not a deterrent for Al Jazeera. The Qatari-based TV operator started offering its sports channels a decade ago (2003) and according to IHS MENA Intelligence data it exhibited a very healthy growth rate throughout this period. Al Jazeera Sports' subscribers went from 100,000 in 2003 to almost 2.5 million (2,445,000) in 2012 experiencing a compound annual growth rate of 38.7 per cent. Al Jazeera' status as the prime MENA brand for sport content was further boosted in November 2009 when it acquired all six ART sports channels in a deal estimated at $2bn. Currently, Al Jazeera Sports is undoubtedly the largest and most popular sports TV network in the whole MENA region with a footprint covering 23 countries. It has amassed the strongest portfolio of sports rights in the region especially when it comes down to soccer.
The acquisition of the EPL rights serves two major goals : the first is to further enhance Al Jazeera's image as the leading sports broadcaster in MENA. The second is to provide an excellent tool to Al Jazeera's owners, the Qatari government, in its effort to leverage its global influence, allowing it to project soft power through the combination of media and sports. This second goal is further reaffirmed by an array of deals and acquisitions like the successful bidding for the 2022 FIFA World Cup; the Qatar Foundation sponsorship agreement with the FC Barcelona soccer club; the investment for obtaining the TV broadcasting rights for the French soccer league which are related with the takeover of the Paris St Germain soccer team; and, finally, the recent rumours that Al Jazeera intends to bid in 2016 for the broadcasting rights to the Spanish La Liga soccer league and to start talks with Mediapro (a Spanish Media agency holding the TV rights of Real Madrid and Barcelona) for a possible take-over.
The Qatari government utilises its investment arm, the Qatari Foundation, as well as Al Jazeera, in an effort to further expand its internationalization strategy. The beIN Sports channels (affiliates of Al Jazeera Media Network) have been launched in France and the US and are available from July 2013 in Indonesia (the first Asian country where the Qatari-based sports broadcaster sets foot) following an agreement with MP & Silva. In the USA Al Jazeera has acquired for $500m the channel Current TV from its previous owner, the former US Vice-President Al Gore, and is planning the launch of Al Jazeera America in autumn 2013 while recently (April 2013) the Doha-based broadcaster paid 39m Turkish Liras (the equivalent of £13.5m) for the acquisition of an HD DTT channel license which will allow it to launch a channel on the Turkish DTT platform from November 2013.
In parallel to the above major goals, the winning bid of the Qatari-based operator will allow it to raise the price of its two packages which are currently very low, even by MENA standards (the basic package comprising 12 channels comes at a monthly charge of $4.50 a month, while the full 16 channels package costs $7.00 a month). We estimate revenues for 2012 were in the range of $170m and the operator seems to have the ability to sustain a sizeable growth rate for the next years both in terms of subscribers and revenues.