Al-Jazeera gets closer to fulfilling sports dream










Original Source: Qatar Tribune



PARIS AL-JAZEERA wants to become the network of Yoann Gourcuff, Alou Diarra and Eden Hazard. Gourcuff, Diarra and Hazard are stars of the Ligue 1, the top division of the French professional soccer league.In June, Al-Jazeera acquired the rights to show Ligue 1 matches in France, signaling an escalation in the broadcaster’s global ambitions.

Al Jazeera has had a significant sports operation in the Middle East for several years, beaming World Cup and European professional soccer, US basketball and Wimbledon tennis across the region via satellite. It is also well known for its news and entertainment channels.But the deal with the French league, which is to take effect in 2012, is different: For the first time, Al- Jazeera will broadcast a major Western sporting event in the league’s domestic market. Its goal is to become the equivalent of a local European broadcaster, no longer content to be seen as merely a niche news channel from the Middle East.

“Al-Jazeera has very deep pockets, and they seem to be splashing money everywhere – you have to see it in that context,” said Faisal Abbas, former media editor at Asharq al-Awsat, an Arabic newspaper that is based in London. “They want to push their presence across multiple platforms and change the perception of the brand.” The investment in French soccer rights is only one of a number of moves by Qatar to expand its international presence in sports.

The emirate was recently named host of the 2022 World Cup. Meanwhile, in France, the Qatar Investment Authority, a government- controlled fund, agreed this spring to acquire a controlling stake in the Paris Saint-Germain soccer team, which plays in the Ligue 1
“They want the world to know that Al-Jazeera, the broadcaster from Qatar, the 2022 World Cup host, has rights to all sorts of sports properties,” said Henri de La Grandville, senior researcher at Sportcal, a website researcher at Sportcal, a Web site that covers the business of sports. “It’s about getting themselves noticed, and they’re doing an excellent job.” In its deal with the Ligue 1, Al-Jazeera will pay €90 million, or $130 million, a year to show two games a week for four seasons. It is sharing the rights with Canal Plus, the French pay-television company, which will also broadcast two matches a week; Canal Plus is paying far more, €420 million a year, but it gets its pick of the best matches, while Al-Jazeera gets the leftovers.

“We are holding discussions with them, in the same way we are discussing opportunities with other interested parties, but this is still at a very early stage and too premature to come to any conclusions,” said Vanessa Clarke, a spokeswoman for Orange.

Al Jazeera, which did not make an executive available to answer questions, has not detailed its plans for French soccer broadcasts. Nasser al Khelaifi, general manager of Al-Jazeera Sport, told the French sports newspaper L’Equipe in June that Al- Jazeera was considering several possibilities. “We are in talks with Orange Sport, but not exclusively,” he said.

“If they tried to do it on their own, it would be a long road to creating a profitable business,” said Tim Westcott, senior analyst at Screen Digest in London.Without Orange, Al-Jazeera would face another difficult question: what to name the channel. In a country that struggles to integrate its Arab minority, analysts say an Arab brand like Al-Jazeera is unlikely to appeal to soccer fans, or to holders of sports rights.

“You’re going to get some people up in arms about the French national pride being sold off to foreigners, especially because they’re Arabs,” said Joe Khalil, a visiting professor at Northwestern University in Doha and co-author of “Arab Television Industries.” Before the sale of the rights to Al-Jazeera was announced, several government officials – including Francois Baroin, who has since then been named finance minister – said they would prefer to see the broadcast rights stay in French hands. A previous proposal to sell Paris Saint- Germain to foreign investors had been blocked by the mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoe, but this time around he did not object.

Like other governmentowned Arab media outlets, Al- Jazeera does not publish financial information. But analysts say sports broadcasting has been a solid earner for Al-Jazeera, whose broadcasts of the 2008 World Cup were hugely popular in the Middle East. Al-Jazeera has also done well with pay-per-view programs in the region, they add.

“Their interest in sports, originally, was seen as one way of offsetting the cost of the news operation, but it has turned out to be considerably profitable for them,” Khalil said. “The way they see themselves is as a global player.”

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