When the U.S. meets Antigua and Barbuda in an important World Cup qualifier on Friday (7 p.m. ET), the game will be shown live on the English-language channel of beIN Sport, the new Al Jazeera-owned company that has altered the landscape of U.S. soccer television this year.
How much have things changed recently? Consider that Miami-based beIN Sport, which debuted with English- and Spanish-language channels in early August, has already gobbled up U.S. rights to the top leagues in Spain (including last weekend's Barcelona-Real Madrid rivalry game), Italy and France, as well as all South American World Cup qualifiers and the U.S.' away qualifiers (except at Mexico).
In a growing U.S. soccer media market, one question now is whether beIN Sport will make a push to acquire an even bigger prize, the U.S. rights to the English Premier League for three seasons starting in 2013-14. The deadline for bids is expected to come in the next two weeks, with beIN Sport's potential competitors including FOX, ESPN and perhaps NBC/Comcast and Univision. (Even Apple and Google were thought to be in the race at one point, though that possibility has cooled somewhat.)
"The deadline for the bid is October 18 if I recall correctly," said beIN Sport managing director Yousef Al Obaidly in a rare interview last week. "We received an invitation [to bid]. If it makes sense for us to go to the Premier League. We might. [But] we might not. We're very focused on the leagues that we have today, and we want to make a good product and show our viewers the best content with the best production."
(Full disclosure: I signed a contract this week to be a regular contributor to Fox Soccer television and have appeared on Al Jazeera English on several occasions.)
BeIN Sport has become such a big story, The New York Times recently ran a front-page article on the start-up, not least because there may be a geopolitical angle. The Qatari government, which funds Al Jazeera, also spent heavily to win the hosting rights for World Cup '22 (defeating the U.S. bid in the last round of a controversial vote). Although the U.S. is a close political ally of Qatar, many U.S. soccer fans are still stung by losing the World Cup bid to the Qataris.
Meanwhile, a wave of Qatari money has washed over the sports world. The Qatar Foundation reached a $225 million agreement last year to become the first paid shirt sponsor of FC Barcelona. The Qatari-owned club Paris Saint-Germain has spent an estimated $250 million over the past two seasons to acquire such high-priced transfers as Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thiago Silva, Javier Pastore and Ezequiel Lavezzi. Meanwhile, the French version of beIN Sport (with the same owner as PSG) acquired the TV rights in that country for almost all of the French league and the UEFA Champions League, in addition to parts of the European Championship and other events. (Al Obaidly manages the French beIN Sport as well.)
In the long term, the increase in competition for U.S. soccer rights should be a good thing for consumers and the sport itself, as long it remains a rational economic market. Yet a number of questions have been raised. Why is Al Jazeera investing millions on soccer in America? Is Al Jazeera using live sports to try to leverage its hard-to-find English-language news channel onto more U.S. distribution platforms? And is beIN Sport overpaying for soccer rights as a Qatari vanity project that doesn't make business sense?
Al Obaidly responded to those questions. For starters, he insisted beIN Sport is independent from Al Jazeera's news channel and is simply trying to grow as a sports channel. "We're looking at all sports, not just soccer," he said, citing rugby, tennis, motorsports, track and field, volleyball and handball as the channel's other potential interests. "Soccer is an opportunity, the first platform we got into. It's a good product, a growing sport. Our strategy is international sports, and that's what we'll provide to our viewers. Soccer was available when we decided to get into that market."
When asked about rivals' questions over whether beIN Sport is a toy of the Qatari royal family that isn't governed by rational business decisions, Al Obaidly said that was not the case. "I'm kind of disappointed when I hear something like that," he said. "We are paying a market price. There are certain rights we win and certain rights we lose. That's the reality. We are a commercial entity based on a business plan."
Whether beIN Sport can succeed in its business plan will depend on distribution. "The first repercussion [of beIN Sport] is DirecTV dropped GolTV from their [English language sports tier] lineup, so it's not like there's an insatiable market from a distribution standpoint for soccer programming," said Mark Noonan, the president of FocalSport, LLC, a sports and entertainment marketing agency, and a former MLS executive vice president. "The true test for beIN Sport is they've acquired some premium content, if you will, so now can they get the distribution to support that content and business model? We'll find out if there's enough demand out there from the soccer community to help drive that distribution, because the cable TV business is very profitable when you have distribution."
U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati, for one, thinks that distribution will come. "The issue with beIN Sport that some of our fans have is they don't have access to it. That's the only issue," Gulati saic. "They'll get greater distribution, there's no doubt about that, given the investments they're making and the properties they have."
While beIN Sport hopes to expand its reach on U.S. platforms in the months and years ahead, it isn't easy for all U.S. soccer fans right now to get the network in their homes. Both beIN Sport channels are currently available on the top two satellite providers, DirecTV (in HD) and DISH (in SD), while Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, is carrying only beIN Sport's Spanish-language channel for now in SD (on its sports entertainment and Hispanic tiers). That means Comcast subscribers will not be able to see the Antigua and Barbuda-U.S. game live. (BeIN Sport's Spanish channel is airing the game on tape delay on Saturday at 3 a.m. and 7 p.m. ET.)
If you don't have a satellite provider, your best bet to see the U.S. game live is to go to a sports bar that has one. Comcast spokesman Peter Dobrow told me his company plans on rolling out beIN Sport's English-language channel in local markets in the months ahead (but only in SD for now).
Al Obaidly said more than 13 million U.S. homes (out of an available 54 million) are now receiving the beIN Sport signal. "We want to make this product available to everybody," he said. "You know how complex the distribution market is within the United States and how crowded it is. We're in the process of negotiating and hopefully reaching agreement with another platform, but we're only 47 days old, a very young sports network." Al Obaidly also denied reports that beIN Sport was paying Comcast for carriage ("we are being paid [by Comcast]").
As for providing online live-stream subscriptions, beIN Sport has no plans to offer them on its own a la Watch ESPN or FoxSoccer2Go, Al Obaidly said, noting that online viewing will be available through authentication on distributors' websites. Comcast's spokesman said it will launch live streaming of both English and Spanish channels later this year. However, Comcast's live stream will simply show what's airing on those channels, not all of the game programming that beIN Sport owns. That's an important point when big games overlap, as was the case on Sunday with Barcelona-Real Madrid, AC Milan-Inter and Marseille-PSG.
Then there's Canada. According to a beIN Sport spokesperson, most of the rights owned by the company include those for Canada, such as the Spanish and Italian leagues. There is no distribution deal yet in place, but he said beIN Sport was working to secure a Canadian solution and provide an online platform for subscribers.
Al Obaidly suggested that U.S. and Canadian soccer fans request beIN Sport from their distributors if they're not providing it, adding that his channel will do its part to return the faith. He said he's taking the long view with beIN Sport.
"It's a way to get into a market where maybe soccer was undervalued," he said. "For example, we acquired the U.S. away games, which were in bars and restaurants and pay-per-view, just all over the place. Now we're trying to have an association. Soccer is the second sport for ages 12 to 24 in the U.S., and if you take that long-term that's your strategy. That's who you'll be targeting going forward. It's something that's very important for us."
How soon will beIN Sport get wider distribution? Could it pick up the Premier League? Those are the two big questions for now. Business can make for strange bedfellows, though. Two years ago, the Qatari royal family handed Gulati his toughest moment, beating the U.S. in the contest to host World Cup '22. In two years, U.S. Soccer's TV contract with ESPN and NBC Sports runs out, and Gulati wouldn't rule out the possibility of a deal with beIN Sport -- which is funded by the Qatari royal family.