The English Premier League revealed on August 21st that the Qatar-based BeIN media group has fallen victim to a “sophisticated piracy operation involving the illegal broadcast of football matches across the Middle East and North Africa”. According to British officials, the Saudi Arabian government has been complicit in running beoutQ, an Arab-language channel airing since August 2017 across Saudi Arabia and the wider Middle East.
The findings were endorsed by BeIN Sports, which has provided evidence showing that beoutQ’s illegally pirated transmissions are emanating out of Riyadh and that its broadcast signals can be traced back to infrastructure owned by the satellite provider Arabsat, which is majority owned by Saudi Arabia. The research was conducted by three independent technology companies: the American company Cisco Systems, the Swiss-based firm NAGRA, and the Spanish Overon. The piracy has been so brazen, yet sophisticated, that beoutQ has simply adopted the practice of superimposing its logo where viewers would typically see the mark of BeIN. The findings of the three tech companies come after Arabsat promoted earlier in July the conclusions of seven unnamed experts who concluded that beoutQ transmissions could not be identified on Arabsat frequencies.
BeIN has suffered extensively from the flagrant theft of its Premier League, Champions League, France’s Ligue 1, and most recently, World Cup coverage, at the hands of beoutQ. After committing billions of dollars to the acquisition of exclusive broadcast rights in the region, it’s easy to understand the frustration with beoutQ’s blatant piracy operation. With Riyadh’s involvement in the theft of BeIN’s transmissions now clear and in recognition of the Saudi-led blockade against Qatar as the prominent geopolitical backdrop, BeIN is justifiably irate.
The entire piracy operation suggests a high degree of technological sophistication as well as substantial financial backing. The fact that it has taken two years for the scandal to break is indicative of beoutQ’s operational polish. Tom Keaveny, BeIN’s managing director in the Middle East, acknowledged the “industrial scale” as well as the requisite millions for funding such a complex enterprise. BeoutQ has even made its own set-top boxes available throughout Saudi Arabia and the Middle East; each box emblazoned with the beoutQ logo.
With all apparent indications pointing to the Saudi government’s involvement behind the scenes of beoutQ’s piracy, the Saudi government has begun producing some rather unconvincing denials that are entirely bereft of tact. Instead of addressing allegations head on in plain language, the Saudi Ministry of Information recently chose to lash out against the Aljazeera Information Network, accusing the Qatari media company of trying to destabilize the region and support terrorism.
Considering the Saudi-led boycott of Qatar, beoutQ’s piracy takes on a starkly political veneer that betrays some fairly obvious ulterior motives. The Saudi government has not been content with its blockade but has proceeded to wage what the Qatari government has called a “financial war”, seeking to undermine and destabilize the peninsula’s economy. Since Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE, and Egypt severed ties with Qatar, the proxy war has played itself out via international and European football.
The international diplomatic dispute managed to cast dark clouds over the recent World Cup, with beoutQ’s overt piracy currently threatening the value of football broadcasting rights across the board. T
The machinations should bring equal concern to broadcasters and football federations alike – if it were not for the fact that a powerful Middle Eastern government was managing the piracy backstage. Various European sports governance bodies have come out with contrasting statements concerning beoutQ’s piracy. FIFA’s public statement has explicitly lambasted beoutQ but has been careful not to lay any blame at the feet of the Saudi government. France’s Ligue 1 has come out with considerable vigor against beoutQ, as the league has announced its plans to bring the case before the European Commission. By contrast, the French body has directly requested Arabsat and Saudi Arabia to put a stop to the operation.
Make no mistake, broadcasting rights are a big moneymaker for the top five football leagues in Europe, earning them a remarkable 8 billion euros per year. But if sports governance bodies fail to unify and stand up against piracy – regardless of who is behind it – the value of those rights might drop significantly. Faced with a lackluster response, media groups such as BeIN could become less and less willing and trustworthy of purchasing broadcast rights if their investment is not protected from flagrant piracy.
This consequence should loom large in sports associations’ risk assessments. While alienating a potential big investor – like the Saudis – might be painful, the value of their brands and broadcasting rights should outweigh any such considerations.