Yesterday’s statement by eight major football bodies about satellite operator Arabsat’s involvement in transmitting the pirate broadcasting service beoutQ was the latest salvo in what has become the biggest – and most politically sensitive – dispute the sports broadcasting industry has ever seen. At stake is the future funding of elite sport through the sale of media rights.
Football’s world governing body, Fifa, two confederations (Uefa in Europe and the AFC in Asia) and Europe’s top five football leagues (England’s Premier League, Spain’s LaLiga, Italy’s Serie A, Germany’s Bundesliga and France’s Ligue 1) jointly published a report which they said proved “beoutQ’s pirate broadcasts have been transmitted using satellite infrastructure owned and operated by Arabsat”.
BeoutQ’s pirate broadcasts have been transmitted using satellite infrastructure owned and operated by Arabsat.
The group of rights-holders commissioned a report into the matter by industry body MarkMonitor.
The publication of the report follows the decision by the group to abandon their attempt to take legal action against beoutQ in the Saudi Arabian courts. As exclusively reported by SportBusiness Media in March, the rights-holders had planned to bring a case using Saudi Arabia’s new copyright laws. The legal action was “imminent”, sources close to the consortium said. The eight green-lighted the action at a secret meeting in Qatari capital Doha in February.
However, by late July the group had come to the conclusion that the action would not be possible. The consortium issued a statement saying: “Over the past 15 months, we spoke to nine law firms in KSA, each of which either simply refused to act on our behalf or initially accepted the instruction, only later to recuse themselves. As copyright holders we have reached the conclusion, regrettably, that it is now not possible to retain legal counsel in KSA which is willing or able to act on our behalf.”
The group said it would pursue beoutQ and “a solution to this very serious problem of piracy” by other means.
BeoutQ was launched in the wake of the Saudi-led economic blockade of Qatar which began in June 2017.
BeoutQ challenges the dominance of Qatari pay-television operator beIN Media Group and its beIN Sports premium channels. BeIN has become the dominant pay-television operator in the Middle East and North Africa over the last decade. Its sports programming has been reproduced virtually in its entirety on the beoutQ platform.
In an exclusive interview with SportBusiness Media in November 2018, beIN’s executive director of sports content, Dan Markham, and its anti-piracy counsel, Cameron Andrews, said there was no question that beoutQ operated out of Saudi Arabia and was being distributed by Arabsat, in which the Saudi state owns a 36.6-per-cent stake. Arabsat’s headquarters are in Saudi capital Riyadh.
They said evidence included, among other things: the beoutQ.se website being geo-blocked to Saudi Arabia; beoutQ satellite subscriptions requiring a Saudi IP address as validation; subscriptions being priced in Saudi riyals; and beoutQ’s advertising being largely for Saudi brands.
BeIN had commissioned a technical investigation which determined that the beoutQ signal was being carried on frequencies used by Arabsat.
We…call on Arabsat and all other satellite providers to stop (and going forward agree to refrain from) providing a platform for piracy, which harms not just legitimate licensees, fans and players but also the sports that it abuses. Cutting off its access to transmission services would be a major step in the fight to stop beoutQ.”
From the outset, Arabsat has always denied any involvement in the transmission of beoutQ. In July 2018, the company’s chief executive Khalid Balkheyour told the Arab News website that Arabsat had always been “confident” that the network wasn’t used by beoutQ and that it had undertaken a “very costly investigation to eliminate any doubts”. It would provide its evidence to “Fifa and the world”.
In June this year, the French courts rejected Arabsat’s defence. The Tribunal de Grande Instance de Paris cited technical reports by digital security and technology companies Cisco Systems, Nagra and Overon which concluded beoutQ channels were available on two dates last year (June 18 and 24) on a satellite operated by Arabsat.
Yesterday the eight football bodies said: “We…call on Arabsat and all other satellite providers to stop (and going forward agree to refrain from) providing a platform for piracy, which harms not just legitimate licensees, fans and players but also the sports that it abuses. Cutting off its access to transmission services would be a major step in the fight to stop beoutQ.”
Initially, beoutQ appeared to be a problem limited to the Middle East and North Africa. The threat to media-rights values seemed to be limited to that single – albeit hugely valuable – region. But it soon became clear that beoutQ represented a global threat.
The 10 encrypted beIN Media Group channels carried by beoutQ are limited to the footprint of the Arabsat satellite service which covers Mena and parts of southern Europe. But the beoutQ set-top box contains IP apps which include hundreds of sports and entertainment channels from around the world and can be accessed anywhere.
BeIN has been deeply frustrated at what it has seen as a sluggish response from the industry. The broadcaster lamented the fact that too many sports bodies saw this as a BeIN problem, not a problem for the whole of sport. The company spends between $2.5bn (€2.27bn) and $3bn per year on sports rights and late last year warned that in future deals a rights-holder’s stance on beoutQ would be a “critical factor” for the broadcaster in deciding whether to acquire rights.
The broadcaster wants rights-holders to take action on multiple fronts. This would involve: protesting publicly to raise awareness of the issue; lobbying relevant trade organisations and regulators; lobbying national governments to intervene with Saudi Arabia; taking legal action against beoutQ or Arabsat; and avoiding ‘legitimising’ the Saudi government through commercial agreements such as event hosting.
Multiple rights-holders have supported Qatar’s filing against Saudi Arabia at the World Trade Organisation and have joined beIN in its submission to the US Trade Representative, part of the office of the US president, calling on the US to intervene with the Saudi government. But recent developments have shown just how difficult it is for rights-holders to deliver meaningful legal action.
EU Copyright Directive not the answer
The rapid global rollout of beoutQ is the most high-profile case of systematic and sophisticated piracy of legitimate sports broadcasting feeds. But it is just one part of a much wider problem facing sport. For most elite sport, the sale of media rights is the biggest single source of revenues. That is under threat as piracy becomes ever more rampant.
Sports rights-holders battling piracy had been pinning their hopes to some extent on the EU Copyright Directive, which had been under discussion for several years among governments across Europe.
Sports-rights holders had hoped that the Directive would establish for the first time ever in European law that the organiser of a sports event was the legal owner of the media rights to that event. This would have made it easier for rights-holders to take legal action to protect their copyright. But an amendment to that effect was dropped at the last minute after horse trading between various stakeholders.
The European Parliament voted in favour of the Directive on March 26 and it was approved by the EU Council of Member States on April 9. Member states now have two years to bring their national laws in line with the Directive. But its value to rights-holders in the battle against piracy is questionable.
The Sports Rights Owners Coalition, a representative body for over 50 sports bodies, said it was “pretty disappointed” in the Directive, which it called a “missed opportunity for sport”.
What next for sports rights-holders?
Piracy remains the biggest single threat to the future media rights revenues of elite sport and the phenomenon shows no sign of abating. In Italy alone, piracy of sports events grew by 52 per cent in 2018.
This is of particular concern to rights-holders at a time when an increasing number of media-rights experts have been predicting that the market for sports media rights has peaked and future growth cannot be guaranteed at the same rate as in the last two decades, even for premium football properties.
In some respects, yesterday’s publication of the report into Arabsat by MarkMonitor reflects the sense of impotence that rights-holders feel in the face of the beoutQ phenomenon and piracy more generally.
To date, nobody has come up with a strategy that will work on the multiple levels required: geo-political, legal, technological and commercial.
The more sophisticated rights-holders should eventually find a common way forward on at least three of these fronts. But not even Fifa, for all its power and influence, can shape world politics.