Saudi Arabia media group to make play for elite global sports events

Saudi Arabia has launched a state-controlled sports media company to manage and secure broadcasting rights in a move that will shake up the multibillion-dollar bidding wars for the right to televise elite sporting events in the Middle East.

Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki al-Faisal, the sports minister, told the Financial Times that the Saudi Sports Company would create a “platform” for content development and managing TV rights. The move comes as Saudi Arabia uses its financial muscle to lure an increasingly diverse array of global sports events to the kingdom.

On Thursday, it was confirmed that Saudi Arabia had secured the rights to host a Formula One motor race for the next 15 years, beginning in 2021. The kingdom is also in discussions to hold a boxing bout next year between Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury, an all-British contest for the undisputed heavyweight title, Prince Abdulaziz said.

The Formula One grand prix and the launch of the media company underscore Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ambitions to develop the kingdom as a regional sporting hub.

Riyadh’s decision to establish the Saudi Sports Company, which will be managed by the sports ministry, comes after a bitter two-year dispute between the kingdom and beIN, a Qatar-owned channel that is estimated to have spent more than $15bn securing the rights to broadcast top European football and other sports for the Middle East.

BeIN accused Riyadh of setting up a pirate television network, beoutQ, which screened events that the Qatari channel held the exclusive rights to. Saudi Arabia, which has been at the forefront of a regional embargo against Qatar, is the Gulf’s most populous country and believed to be the region’s biggest market for sports broadcasters.

Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki al-Faisal, centre, Saudi Arabia’s sports minister, with boxers Andy Ruiz Jr, left, and Anthony Joshua ahead of the ‘Clash on the Dunes’ fight last year outside Riyadh © Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty

Riyadh denied beIN’s allegations. But the World Trade Organization ruled in June that the Saudi government had “infringed” international trade agreements due to the country’s involvement with beoutQ.

The controversy was one of the reasons behind the failure of a Saudi-led £300m bid for Newcastle United, the English football club. It could also undermine Saudi attempts to buy broadcasting rights.

Prince Abdulaziz said the Saudi Sports Company would not bid for TV rights for the Middle East, as beIN has done, but instead focus solely on serving the kingdom. He said initially the entity would concentrate on managing the kingdom’s existing broadcasting rights, which include Formula One, the Paris-Dakar rally, a motor race that took place in Saudi Arabia for the first time this year, and the Spanish and Italian football Super Cups, which it also hosts.

The current rights to broadcast the English, German, Spanish and Italian football leagues expire in the coming years.

BeIN last month said it would not renew its rights to broadcast Germany’s Bundesliga, saying “piracy has crippled the market”. BeIN is banned in the kingdom and the only way for Saudis to watch elite European football is through pirated streaming services.

The sports minister said Riyadh had been contacted by a “number of [football] leagues” but had not reached a “concrete agreement”. He said that the German league had approached the kingdom. People close to the Bundesliga have previously disputed this assertion, saying the league was contacted by a representative of the Saudi state.

“We said we are not interested . . . until we have set up the right platform and then we will discuss it,” Prince Abdulaziz said. “The main target is to manage the broadcasting rights we already have. If we come into an agreement with any of the leagues, or find an appetite for that, we will definitely look into it.”

He dismissed concerns that the piracy allegations would hinder Riyadh’s ability to secure broadcasting rights, insisting that the government had tackled piracy. “When we explain this to them [ football leagues], they understand it,” he added.

He acknowledged that unbundling Middle East contracts to enable Saudi Arabia to secure the broadcasting rights just for the kingdom could be an issue. But he said: “We know that Saudi plays a big chunk of the market.”

The development of a sports industry is viewed as an integral part of Prince Mohammed’s plans to provide more entertainment options for the kingdom’s youthful population — the crown prince’s main constituency as he spearheads a “Vision 2030” plan to modernise the conservative nation.

It is also viewed as a tool of soft power and part of efforts to alter perceptions of the kingdom, which has been tarnished by human rights abuses, including the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents. Activists have accused Riyadh of attempting to “sports-wash” its reputation by hosting global events.

Saudi Arabia is also bidding to host the Asian football championship in 2027 and the Asian Games athletics meeting in 2030. “There’s a lot of criticism with this, but if we can showcase that we can do something on the continent level that is strong, that will give us a stronger case in the future to maybe bid for either the [football] World Cup or the Olympics,” Prince Abdulaziz said. “Everything is open, a lot of things are being discussed.”

Additional reporting by Murad Ahmed in London

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