French football crisis deepens as league fails to resell TV rights

France’s top-flight football league has failed to auction off four lots of television rights for the 2021-2024 seasons that had been returned by its cash-strapped former broadcaster Mediapro, plunging the sport deeper into crisis.

The Ligue de Football Professionnel (LFP) said in a statement on Monday night that it had received bids from tech giant Amazon, US broadcaster Discovery, which owns Eurosport, and the sports streaming service DAZN. None of the bids was seen as valuable enough by the league.

“Given that the reserve prices were not reached, the consultations were unsuccessful,” it said. “The LFP will take 48 hours to determine the next steps in commercialising its TV rights.”

France’s Ligue 1, which is made up of 20 teams including Paris Saint-Germain and Olympique de Marseille, must now seek a new way out of the slow-motion crisis that began in October when Mediapro simply stopped paying for the TV rights. Several club presidents earlier told the Financial Times that the situation could push some clubs into bankruptcy, and many have already begun negotiating with players over cutting their pay.

The failure of the auction stemmed largely from the fact that Vivendi’s pay-TV operator Canal Plus and Qatar-backed beIN Sports did not submit bids.

Canal Plus was the main broadcaster of French football for decades but in 2018 the league cut it out in favour of newcomer Mediapro in an auction that pushed up the total price by nearly 60 per cent to just over €1bn. At that time, beIN Sports won a smaller package of rights and later signed a licensing deal worth €330m a year with Canal Plus to give them access to the matches.

Then the Covid-19 pandemic last year cast a pall over the sport by sapping revenue from tickets and merchandising. The crisis crippled Mediapro’s attempt to launch a new pay-TV channel called Telefoot to showcase French football, and by October the Spanish company had simply stopped paying the hundreds of millions it owed to the league.

Mediapro then sought court protection from its creditors, namely the LFP.

After an acrimonious fight and a court-supervised mediation process, the two sides eventually agreed that Mediapro would give back the rights, leaving the league free to sell them again. But the broadcaster would pay only a fraction of what it owed the league, placing huge stress on the finances of the member clubs.

And before the auction could be held, Canal Plus launched a lawsuit against the LFP, arguing that the league should also take back the batch of rights that it had licensed from beIN Sports. Canal Plus argued it would be fairer to resell all the rights or otherwise it would be stuck with the inflated prices set in the 2018 auction.

The league refused, and then went ahead with the auction that failed on Monday. A court hearing is expected on February 19 to hear the case of Canal Plus against the league.

Canal Plus has also filed a complaint with France’s competition regulator over the league’s decision.

Canal Plus and beIN Sports declined to comment.

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