Al Jazeera confirms English Premier League interest

Rebecca Hawkes ©RapidTVNews | 27-05-2012

Qatar based Al Jazeera Sport (AJS) has confirmed it may bid for the domestic TV rights to the English Premier League, ahead of launching the beIN Sport network in France this week and its August arrival in the US.

"We are studying whether there is room for another sports channel there [the UK]," Nasser al-Khelaifi, director of Al Jazeera Sport, is quoted as saying by Reuters.

"There is a lot of opportunity in the world for sports channels," he added. "We are going to look at all the opportunities in Europe. We are going to study each market one by one, and if there is room for another channel, then we will go."

With 15 pay TV and two free to air channels broadcast in Arabic and English, AJS is already the most watched sports network in the Middle East and North Africa. But this past year AJS has also been seeking European football rights for television audiences around the globe.

French Ligue 1, Italian Serie A, German Bundesliga, UEFA Champions League and UEFA Euro 2012 coverage has already been snapped up for the French TV market, and US TV rights to Spain's La Liga, Serie A and the French Ligue 1 are reportedly either sealed or in negotiation, along with football action from Latin America.

Now the Qatar-based broadcaster is studying tender documents and market conditions to broadcast the English Premier League to its home audience. The last deal for what is considered the hottest TV property in football cost News Corp affiliate Sky and ESPN a whopping £1.782 billion (US$2.9 billion) between them, and a three year rights package for the UK - beginning with the 2013-14 season - is currently up for auction. The English Premier League is expected to make its selection in June.

It remains to be seen if a foray onto Sky's well established turf could prove successful in the UK, however competitors are certainly taking the gas-rich Gulf state's interest seriously, as Qatar signals its intent as a global sporting powerhouse ahead of hosting the World Cup in 2022.

"An Al Jazeera bid is a realistic option," Ross Hair, managing director ESPN UK said in February. "They have done something very interesting in France in buying first division football against the incumbent satellite broadcaster Canal Plus and we've also looked at what they've done in other markets.

"You can draw parallels with the upcoming auction in the UK. Al Jazeera have the ambition to grow further in sport and into other markets," Hair added.

In France, AJS' two new channels will reach a potential 14 million cable, satellite and IPTV homes, and cost subscribers 11 euros a month. As well as football, beIN Sport will air golf, basketball, and provide some coverage of the London 2012 Olympics.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, beIN Sport is reportedly in talks with Imagina US, a Miami-based production company that would provide studios for the broadcasts of the European football matches Al Jazeera acquires in the US.

BeIN Sport is expected to target the enormous US resident Spanish-speaking audience in addition to English speakers, providing two channels of what the continent considers niche sports – such as football, or soccer in local parlance.

Since 2007, Fox Soccer and its sister channel Fox Soccer Plus have brought Italy's top-flight football league Serie A to US viewers, after initially sharing the rights with GolTV. In addition, the News Corp-owned channels have televised France's Ligue 1 over the past two seasons, having reportedly acquired the US rights without parting with a fee.

AJS, however, claims beIN Sport is not going after the same market as Fox or ESPN - the other heavyweight pay TV sports provider in the US.

"The rationale there is completely different than what we are doing in France," said al-Khelaifi. "It's not about competing with ESPN or Fox, it's more of a niche channel featuring international sports."