What Arab oil has to do with the Premier League – and the sports TV wars

ESPN. Fox. NBC. Al Jazeera?

One thing that has become apparent to those following the world of international sports in recent years is that you don’t bleep with oil money. There’s no other way to explain why the United States lost the 2022 World Cup to Qatar of all places, in spite of all its problems. The richest horse race in the world is held in Dubai, as is the culminating event of the European Tour (last I checked Dubai is not in Europe, and I doubt it’s in a climate particularly conducive to golf courses). And American interest in soccer, at least European club soccer, could be shot down just as it’s getting off the ground by the whims of an Arab oil sheik.

Al Jazeera is best known to Americans as that group that aired Osama bin Laden’s tapes, and as such most Americans pretty much associate it with terrorists and thus its attempt to launch an English-language news network in the US has pretty much been a miserable failure. But over the past year it’s been on an astonishing run of acquiring US rights to international soccer leagues, winning rights to three of the five biggest leagues in Europe – Spain’s La Liga, Italy’s Serie A, and France’s Ligue 1 – which it will use to launch two new channels on Wednesday¬†called beIN Sport.

But of course, the big daddy of European soccer rights in the US by a long shot is the English Premier League, and that has to have people at Fox quaking in their boots. Fox has already lost the rights to MLS to NBC, and Serie A to the new beIN Sport operation. It still has rights to the UEFA Champions League and newly-acquired World Cup rights, but the English Premier League is the bread and butter of their Fox Soccer operation. Lose that, and you might as well move what’s left to a Fox Sports network and shutter Fox Soccer, convert it to Fox Sports 1 or 2, or sell it to the beIN Sport people. Already competitor GolTV has lost the rights to its own La Liga bread and butter, leaving it with not much more than the German Bundesliga, the Brazilian league, and some scattered international competition.

If Fox has to be worried about the prospect of these upstarts from Qatar stealing Premier League rights, American soccer fans have to be absolutely terrified. A lot of work has been done to get to the point where a substantial number of Americans are now interested in the Premier League and to a lesser extent European soccer in general, and beIN Sport could end up destroying all of it. Not even the NFL can launch a network from scratch in less than a year and get anything close to wide distribution, and even Fox Soccer doesn’t have as much distribution as you might think. How quickly can beIN Sport even get to Fox Soccer’s level? A year? Two years? Five years? (It doesn’t help that a lot that beIN Sport has done has been kept low-profile, almost secret, to the point that it’s not even clear what carriage agreements beIN Sport has signed, but the list of providers to call on their Web site indicates it includes none of the biggest ones.)

beIN Sport has already declared it has no plans to sublicence any games to anyone, meaning the sizable stateside fandom of Spanish clubs Barcelona and Real Madrid used to seeing games on GolTV and ESPN are already screwed. For the same to happen to the Premier League, so soon after Fox’s much-publicized experiment in airing every game of the Premier League’s final week, could be potentially catastrophic.¬†And what of ESPN? They’ve gone on a full-court press promoting their embrace of soccer, even after losing the World Cup to Fox. But what if they can’t air Premier League or La Liga games anymore either? They’ll still have MLS, some National Team games, and the Euro tournament, but will that be worth it?

ESPN’s UK operation has already lost the rights to the Premier League, which could reduce ESPN’s motivation to keep airing it in the States. Fox will surely have motivation to keep the backbone of Fox Soccer, but will that be enough to counter seemingly bottomless piles of oil money? Soccer fans should enjoy the current relative glut of European soccer on television, especially the recent thrilling Premier League finish, while it lasts, because it might not for much longer. And they should root hard for Fox, as well as anyone else – ESPN, NBC, even CBS Sports Network or truTV, or a strange bedfellows alliance between two or more of them – in the sports TV wars interested in the Premier League rights, lest soccer in this country end up set back decades.

Then again, maybe beIN Sport can round up cable providers with no problems whatsoever… in which case the sports TV wars, and maybe the larger American media industry, might just have a new contender.

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