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EHF Champions League rescheduling hits rights round in France

CIUDAD REAL, SPAIN - MAY 02: Hamburg handball player Matthias Flohr in action during the EHF Champions League Semi Final second leg match between BM Ciudad Real and HSV Hamburg at the Quijote Arena hall on April 2, 2009 in Ciudad Real, Spain. (Photo by Samuel Aranda/Getty Images)

  • Incumbent beIN Sports concerned about move to midweek matches
  • Discussions with distributor Infront hit impasse
  • beIN renews EHF Euro rights at around €1m base fee per edition, with bonus component

The rescheduling of European Handball Federation Champions League matches to midweek is proving a sticking point in Infront’s efforts to negotiate a new rights round in France, SportBusiness Media understands.

The top-tier pan-European men’s club competition will be played on Wednesdays and Thursdays from 2020-21, rather than mainly at the weekend at present. The EHF took the decision in order to create ‘appointment to view’ slots for the competition that more clearly delineate its schedule from the various domestic leagues as well as set aside weekends for the women’s Champions League.

EHF told SportBusiness Media that the ‘appointment to ‘view’ concept was supported by Infront and its co-distributor, digital media company DAZN. The two companies jointly hold the EHF’s media and marketing rights in a 10-season deal, from 2020-21 to 2029-30, worth at least an average of €50m ($55m) per season.

But the move has not sat well with pay-television broadcaster beIN Sports, the incumbent rights-holder in France. It has held rights to the men’s and women’s competitions since 2012-13 in a deal initially set to run until 2016-17 but later extended to 2019-20. That deal also covered the US, Canada, and Middle East and North Africa. It is thought the allocation for France was in excess of €1.2m per season.

It is understood beIN is concerned the shift to mid-week matches in the men’s competition will cause it scheduling difficulties. The men’s Champions League matches will be played at 18:45 and 20:45 CET on Wednesdays and Thursdays. But the top-tier domestic league, the Starligue, plays on the same days and at around the same time as the later Champions League timeslot. BeIN holds Starligue rights for the 2019-23 cycle in a deal worth about €4m per season.

It is understood French teams who have qualified for the Champions League will play their Starligue matches on weekends from next season, to avoid fixture clashes, but other Starligue fixtures will continue in midweek.

The potential scheduling crunch is exacerbated by the fact beIN has acquired rights to the bulk of Uefa’s football Champions League in France for the three seasons from 2021-22. These matches are played at 18:45 and 21:00 CET and equally split between Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

It is understood discussions between beIN and Infront have reached an impasse. Infront declined to comment on the matter when approached by SportBusiness Media. The agency is leading the sales process in France on behalf of the Infront/DAZN joint venture. BeIN did not respond to requests for comment.

Other options

Infront has also approached telco Altice, pay-television broadcaster Canal Plus and digital terrestrial broadcaster L’Équipe TV about the EHF Champions League rights.

It is understood Altice is not interested in the property, while Canal Plus is not thought to have much appetite after its recent spate of rights deals. These include its acquisition of Uefa club competitions, extension of Formula One rights and an agreement with beIN to take on the latter’s French Ligue 1 rights from 2020-21 to 2023-24 as part of an exclusive distribution agreement.

L’Équipe TV is thought to be the only potentially viable alternative buyer for the Champions League rights, aside from beIN. L’Équipe TV currently holds the rights to the handball Coupe de France in an agreement that covers both the men’s and women’s competition and runs from 2017-18 to 2019-20. But it would struggle to land the property if Infront/DAZN and EHF prioritise financial reward over exposure.

One source at a major broadcaster told SportBusiness Media: “L’Équipe would obviously be good for exposure, but if it’s a money issue for the rights-holder, there’s no chance for them. If L’Équipe had to go to €1m per season, there is no way they would put that amount of money on the table.”

SportBusiness Media understands the midweek scheduling of the men’s Champions League would also be an issue for L’Équipe TV, given commercial broadcaster M6 has rights to the Europa League and Europa Conference League from 2021-22. The fact the latter properties will have wide free-to-air exposure means L’Équipe TV would face strong competition for audience share on at least Thursday nights. This would affect the commercial viability of any EHF Champions League acquisition, thus limiting the amount it would be willing to pay.

Indeed, competition for audience share is thought by some industry experts to be another reason the EHF chose to shift the Champions League to midweek from the weekend. It is thought that the federation wanted to avoid competition for viewers with domestic football and handball leagues.

One broadcasting expert said: “Of course, you are still competing with the Uefa Champions League and the Europa League in midweek, but it’s probably better to compete with the Champions League than with national leagues in terms of football.”

But EHF told SportBusiness Media this was not a motivation: “The reasons for re-scheduling were to create the ‘appointment to view’ and a clear picture in the calendar. Midweek is now for the men’s EHF Champions League/EHF European League [the latter being played Tuesdays], the weekend is for the national leagues. We are focused on handball only.”

European Championships

While beIN’s discussions with Infront continue for the Champions League, the broadcaster has retained its rights to the men’s and women’s European Championships from 2020 to 2024.

The acquisition is multi-territory and, in addition to France, covers the US, Canada, Turkey, Asia (Thailand, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Philippines, Singapore and Malaysia) as well as Australia and New Zealand.

Inventory comprises the men’s and women’s tournaments for 2020, 2022 and 2024 in addition to related final draw events and trophy ceremonies. It also includes the men’s and women’s EHF Beach Handball Champions Cup for 2021, 2023 and 2025.

BeIN’s previous Euros deal with Infront covered 2016 and 2018. That deal was also multi-territory and covered France, French overseas territories, Monaco, Andorra, Mauritius, Madagascar, the US, Canada, Australia, and Middle East and North Africa.

BeIN is thought to have renewed at a similar base rights fee to the last cycle, at around €1m per edition. However, the renewal is understood to contain a bonus schedule that would see the fee potentially rise to double the base level, dependent on the performance of France and Turkey.

The broadcaster’s previous Euro inventory included France’s away qualifiers, but these are not part of the new deal. It is understood Infront offered beIN these matches in a separate package but the broadcaster turned it down. The agency has now made the away qualifiers available to the market. It is understood beIN will look to acquire these matches on a case-by-case basis.

BeIN already holds the rights to home qualifiers for international tournaments in a deal with the French Handball Federation (FFHB) from 2019 to 2023. That deal, which is worth about €1.2m per year, also includes rights to home national-team friendlies.

Handball is one of beIN’s most important sports. In addition to the Euro, French national-team matches, the Champions League and the Starligue, beIN holds rights to the Coupe de la Ligue; Trophées des Champions; and the Division 2 Proligue finals. Further, it has rights in France to the International Handball Federation World Championships.

It also held rights to the domestic women’s handball league before the collapse of renewal talks with the FFHB last summer.

BeIN’s latest Euro deal was secured in private negotiations with Infront, which are understood to have been protracted. Infront approached all major broadcasters about the rights, but it is thought no one else was interested.

TF1 sublicence

BeIN has sublicenced matches involving the French national teams at the 2020, 2022 and 2024 men’s and women’s Euro to commercial broadcaster TF1. The deal was agreed in private negotiations.

TF1 has non-exclusive free-to-air rights to up to five matches in each competition. It can show three group-stage French national team matches as well as the semi-finals and the final should the French team progress that far. French listed-events legislation dictates that should France reach the final of the men’s or women’s tournament, the match must be shown on free-to-air television.

TF1 had never broadcast matches from the men’s Euro prior to the 2020 edition, which took place from January 9-26. It showed matches from the women’s 2018 tournament, also sublicensed from beIN.

The sublicensing agreement is similar in structure to TF1 and beIN’s accord for the men and women’s IHF World Championships from 2019 to 2025. That agreement does not include the final of the tournaments, as TF1 has a separate deal with the Lagardère Sports agency in the case of French participation.

Ahead of the men’s 2018 EHF Euro, beIN sold on free-to-air rights to three games (a main-round game, semi-final and the final) to commercial broadcaster M6.

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