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Canal Plus threatens French football blackout over Amazon deal

Amazon has agreed to buy the broadcast rights to most of France’s top-flight football matches for the next three seasons, in a significant expansion of its ambitions in live sports in Europe. 

The ecommerce giant beat Vivendi’s pay-TV unit Canal Plus in a competitive auction held by France’s Ligue 1 governing body, Ligue Professionnelle de Football (LFP), on Friday in Paris. Up for grabs were eight matches a week, as well as the second-tier Ligue 2. 

One media industry executive close to the deal said Amazon had agreed to pay about €275m a year to screen roughly 80 per cent of French top-flight matches. 

But the deal has infuriated Vivendi executives because Canal Plus had previously agreed to pay €330m for the remaining 20 per cent, or just three games a week. 

Canal Plus said in a statement on Friday that it would stop screening Ligue 1 games altogether starting next season, but did not specify whether it would continue paying as agreed under its existing contract. 

The surprise auction result is the latest twist in a difficult stretch for French football since its choice of a new broadcaster for 2020 to 2024, the Spanish-Chinese company Mediapro, proved disastrous.

Mediapro stopped paying and then went bust barely six months into a four-year, €780m deal. 

That left the league without a broadcaster, mired in legal battles, and put French clubs under immense financial strain just as the pandemic brought sports to a halt last year.

The arrival of Amazon will be seen as a saviour by some in Ligue 1. 

The US technology company has steadily bought up the broadcast rights for major sporting events in big markets, seeking to tie viewers to its Prime subscription services. In recent years, it has secured rights to stream National Football League matches in the US, is among the broadcasters of the English Premier League and the ATP men’s tennis tour in the UK. 

This week in France, Amazon has been broadcasting live French Open tennis matches, the first time the tournament has not been free to air on the country’s state-backed TV channels. But the night sessions on Amazon Prime have been plagued with technical problems, and it is unclear what impact it has had on ratings since Amazon does not disclose figures.

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Alex Green, who leads Amazon’s sports business in Europe, said: “We’re incredibly happy to bring every club and the most thrilling matches” to its Prime video platform. 

But the league’s choice has alienated Canal Plus and could threaten its existing broadcast contract with France’s biggest pay-TV operator.

“After the failure of the Mediapro’s choice made in 2018, Canal+ regrets the LFP decision to choose Amazon over its historic partners Canal+ and beIN Sports [The Qatar-based broadcaster]. Thus, Canal+ will not broadcast Ligue 1,” it said.

Canal Plus may now seek to challenge the terms and process of the auction in court. In recent months, it had been pushing the league to start over with a new auction for all the TV rights from 2021 to 2024, and had also filed an antitrust complaint to seek to force their hand. French regulators rejected that effort earlier this week, paving the way for the league to hold the auction on Friday. 

The LFP did not respond to a request for comment.


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