Al-Jazeera’s soccer takeover

The Al-Jazeera Sport Media Network, through something called beIN Sport USA network, has obtained the U.S. television rights to Spain’s La Liga — the top-tier Spanish soccer league that is home to Barcelona and Real Madrid, arguably the two best soccer clubs in the world. Italy’s Serie A, France’s Ligue 1, and England’s second-tier division have also moved to the Al-Jazeera outfit.

According to Soccernet, beIn Sport USA is available in only about 8 million homes to viewers of DirecTV and DISH Network. Thus, in the short-term at least, La Liga and and its Italian counterpart Serie A will lose virtually all of their growing American audience, a fact about which AC Milan’s director says he was unaware when the deal was made. According to one sports consultant:

The ratings are going to be so low that they will be almost unmeasurable. Considering the push that European soccer is making in the United States, taking additional money and losing exposure becomes fools’ gold. They need to have a long-term strategy, not short-term.

Unlike European soccer officialdom, Al-Jazeera has a long-term strategy. Indeed, its soccer TV “takeover” is part of a larger trend. Qatar, where Al-Jazeera is based, beat out the U.S. two years ago in bidding to host the 2022 World Cup. As a result, the World Cup will be played during the summer in the desert. As I wrote at the time, the decision to hold play the world championship in Qatar is perhaps the most appalling and corrupt in the history of sports.

Recently, the Qatar Investment Authority took control of Paris Saint-Germain. It has already spent roughly $200 million in transfer fees for players to strengthen its roster, an ungodly amount in any league but especially in the relatively low-rent French Ligue 1. And in Spain, Barcelona agreed to a five-year, 170 million euro (then $225 million) sponsorship deal to wear the Qatar Foundation logo on its famous blue and red jerseys.

It’s never wise to read too much into developments in sports. Perhaps the Al-Jazeera/Qatar power play means nothing more than that money talks and Europe is broke, while Qatar is flush — facts we already knew.

For now, I’ll resist the temptation to draw political or sociological conclusions and focus only on the sporting consequences of the Arab “takeover.” So far, they include an upcoming joke World Cup in the desert, virtually no American TV access to Spanish and Italian matches, and domestic leagues dominated by outrageously rich clubs in which few teams have a chance to win top honors.

At this rate, I may end up hating soccer as much as some of our readers seem to.

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