State-owned Qatari television network Al Jazeera is exploring the acquisition of Spain's La Liga premier soccer league rights in a bid to expand its budding global sports franchise, tweak its business model in a world in which pan-Arab television is on the decline and compensate for mounting criticism of its coverage of popular revolts in the Middle East and North Africa.
Al Jazeera's renewed interest in Spanish rights comes as financially troubled Spain's two major sports broadcasters, Mediapro and Canal Plus, which is owned by Grupo Prisa, are struggling under a mountain of debt. It also follows a breakdown in talks with Rupert Murdoch's media empire, according to Spanish news website El Confidencial Digital.
Grupo Prisa with debts estimated at €3 billion and Mediapro with liabilities of €300 million hinted last year that they would not bid at current rates for the Spanish league rights when the broadcast contract expires in 2016.
Al Jazeera's interest in the Spanish rights reaffirms its strategy of moving in behind other Qatar government institutions as they conclude sponsorship agreements and acquisitions such as the winning of the hosting rights of the 2022 World Cup, Qatar Foundation and Qatar Airways' sponsorship of FC Barcelona, and the television network's acquisition of French broadcasting rights in the wake of the Gulf state's takeover of Paris St. Germain.
It also fits Al Jazeera's move into markets such as Egypt in anticipation that they will generate revenue at a later stage rather than immediately and Qatar's strategy of employing sports and media to leverage its global influence. Al Jazeera last year launched BelN Sports USA and early this year purchased former U.S. vice president Al Gore's Current TV to ease the network's penetration of the North and Latin American markets.
Al Jazeera's emphasis on sports as well as its acquisition of local broadcasters such as Mubasher in Egypt reflects changes in Middle Eastern and North African broadcasting. Al Jazeera's launch in 1996 revolutionized the region's news broadcasting that until then was dominated by state-run broadcasters who towed the official line with its free-wheeling coverage and debate of sensitive issues and willingness to offend governments. As a result, it spawned the launch of a huge number of satellite television stations eager to grab a piece of the pie and make their mark.
It's a strategy that has paid off. More than anything else, Al Jazeera and the 2022 World Cup have put Qatar, a tiny city state, on the world map, allowing it to project soft power and engage in public diplomacy.
Nevertheless, Al Jazeera, which experienced a boom as the primary news source in the heyday of the Arab revolts that toppled the leaders of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen, has seen its viewership numbers decline recently with Arabs turning increasingly to local news broadcasters and a growing perception that Al Jazeera is in bed with the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups in line with Qatar's support for them in various post-revolt countries as well as in Syria.
Market research company reported recently that Al Jazeera's market share in Tunisia had dropped from 10.7 in 2011 to 4.8% in 2012 and that the Qatari network was no longer among Egypt's 10 most watched channels. Tunisia's 3C Institute of Marketing, Media and Opinion Studies said that Al Jazeera Sports was the only brand of the network that ranked in January among the country's five most watched channels.
Al Jazeera reporters are reportedly increasingly harassed as they seek to do their jobs in Tunisia. Protests that erupted after this year's assassination of prominent opposition leader Shukri Belaid charged that "Al Jazeera is a slave of Qatar," accusing it of biased reporting on the murder because of the Gulf state's support for Ennahada, the country's dominant Islamist grouping.
Complicating Al Jazeera's potential push into Spain is the fact that Spanish law requires one match a week to be aired on a free-to-air rather than a pay TV channel as well as the fact that each Spanish club sells its own rights which strengthens the negotiating position of teams like Real Madrid and FC Barcelona.
Grupo Prisa currently owns the broadcasting rights of Atletico Madrid, Celta de Vigo, RCD Espanyol, Getafe, Osasuna, Real Sociedad, Real Zaragoza, Athletic Bilbao and Real Betis while Mediapro's franchise includes Real Madrid FC and FC Barcelona. El Confidencial Digital reported that Al Jazeera was likely to revolutionize the $600 million Spanish soccer broadcast market by acquiring La Liga's rights as a package with Mediapro acting as its broadcast sub-contractor despite Madrid and Barcelona's opposition.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg's Institute for Fan Culture, visiting scholar at the University of Würzburg's Institute of Sport Science, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog where this story first appeared.
Follow James Dorsey on Twitter: www.twitter.com/mideastsoccer