Belgian Pro League clubs meet to award rights amid strong Mediapro interest

The 24 clubs from Belgian soccer’s top two divisions are meeting today to potentially award domestic broadcast rights from 2020-21 onwards amid strong interest from Mediapro, the agency and production group.

Having launched the invitation to tender on December 2, Belgium’s Pro League invited bids across 11 packages for four- or five-year contract terms.

News has emerged of a 10-year rights proposal from Mediapro lodged before the tender process. It is claimed the proposal for rights over a decade was rebuffed by the league given the proposed contract length and likelihood it would be rejected by Belgium’s competition authorities.

However, it is understood that Mediapro did not, after all, submit a (four- or five-season) bid in the tender itself.

Given the heightened interest in the rights, Pro League looks set to eclipse the domestic media-rights returns generated in the current cycle (from 2017-18 to 2019-20).

At present, the league generates upwards of €80m per season from live domestic rights deals with telecoms operations Proximus, Telenet and Voo, supplemented by highlights and near-live clip rights deals.

Increased inventory on offer this time also allows the league to maximise the market value. The Pro League is offering rights to not only the top-tier ‘1A’ and second-tier ‘1B’ divisions, but also the Supercup, Belgian Cup and the women’s Super League as rights are centralised across all competitions. All rights packages are being offered on a platform-neutral basis.

Véronique Thirion, the prosecutor general at the Belgian Competition Authority, this week expressed her confidence that procedures would be followed correctly in the tender. She told Belgium’s Het Laatste Nieuws: “We are involved in the procedure from a distance. If there were irregularities then we would respond to them…but for now, I haven’t received any indications of that.”

Mediapro is launching subscription channels in neighbouring France on the back of its €780m-per-year contract for eight Ligue 1 rights packages from 2020-21 to 2023-24 (plus rights to Ligue 2). The company will also be involved in the host broadcast of Ligue 1 matches when its new contract takes effect.

However, there have been criticisms of the general lack of information coming from Mediapro over its plans to showcase the French leagues, with no distribution deals announced, and questions raised over the schedule of rights fee payments. Jaume Roures, chief executive of Mediapro, which was taken over by China’s Orient Hontai Capital in 2018, sought to allay any fears in October.

Mediapro does hold a 10-year rights agreement to broadcast the Canadian Premier League. In February 2019, Mediapro announced its 10-year agreement with Canadian Soccer Business, the body set up to represent club and national team commercial rights. As part of that tie-up, it launched its OneSoccer OTT platform to showcase the rights.

During the last tender process, Belgium’s telecoms operators overcame a bid from subscription broadcaster Eleven Sports to secure the rights.

RFBF, the French-language public broadcaster, holds highlights rights until the end of this season. RTBF also shares live rights to the Belgian Super Cup (with Telenet). Vier, the SBS-owned channel, holds the main package of free-to-air Flemish-language highlights rights. Non-exclusive clip rights deals are in place with the league’s live and highlights broadcasters, along with various publishing companies, including De Persgroep and Mediahuis.

The Jupiler Pro League’s top sides, including the likes of Anderlecht, Club Brugge and Standard Liège, had been considering the individual sale of their rights to broadcasters, but the league has pressed ahead with the collective sale of rights.

The Belgian top flight will retain its 16-team format with playoffs after the league and member clubs signed off on the competition format in April.

This came after proposals for either a top tier of 20 teams or a new structure with a 14-team 1A division and 10-team 1B division both failed to gain the necessary approval. The discussions over the format served to push back the invitation to tender process.