March 3, 2021

Al Jazeera’s New Goal in Sports

PARIS — Al Jazeera used to be known, somewhat unfairly, as the television network of Osama bin Laden. Now it wants to become the network of Yoann Gourcuff, Alou Diarra and Eden Hazard.

Mr. Gourcuff, Mr. Diarra and Mr. 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, based in Qatar, has had a significant sports operation in the Middle East for several years, beaming World Cup and European professional soccer, American 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, whose ruling family owns Al Jazeera, 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 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.

Ligue 1 rights are currently shared by Canal Plus and Orange, a unit of France Télécom, which set up a pay-TV channel three years ago to show the matches and other sports events.

The Orange Sport channel has attracted only 500,000 customers — not enough to cover the €200 million a year that it has been paying for Ligue 1 rights. Now the company is looking to unload Orange Sport, either via a sale or a partnership with another broadcaster — perhaps Al Jazeera.

“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’Équipe in June that Al Jazeera was considering several possibilities.

“We are in talks with Orange Sport, but not exclusively,” he said. “There are other options. We could start a channel. We are very open to talks. ”

A partnership with, and potentially an acquisition of, Orange could solve several potential problems for Al Jazeera. One is that it needs to acquire additional sports content quickly to fill out the programming lineup for a French sports channel. It also needs distribution deals with pay-TV platforms to deliver the channel to viewers’ living rooms. Orange already has these things in place.

“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.

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