Televising The World Cup Around the World

Two media stories which have interested me a lot about the World Cup so far.

In the UK, we’re fortunate to still have Ofcom’s Listed Events. This is a list of sports events that are considered national events, and must be available to audiences free-to-air. Despite various attempts to either redefine the list, or scrap it altogether, the list is still in place.

What that means is that if a broadcaster wants to buy the rights to the World Cup, they have to make it available to everyone. That essentially prevents Sky or BT from buying them – at least unless they also used Freeview space to broadcast the games. Hence the BBC and ITV share the rights to big tournaments such as these.

But while Listed Events are common in Europe, elsewhere in the world they are less common. Here are two stories about markets where there have been problems as a result.

Saudi Arabia

The Saudi Arabian national team may not have covered themselves in glory during their 5-0 defeat in the opening game in Moscow, but of course there remains high interest in the team and the tournament as a whole back in Saudi Arabia. This is the first appearance for the country since 2006.

However, across the Middle East and North Africa, BeIN Sports has the rights to the tournament. BeIN is the Qatar-based sports broadcaster that has been growing in size in recent years both in the Middle East and beyond. And this time around there are no fewer than four North African teams in the tournament: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco.

This is where politics gets involved. As you may be aware, Qatar is currently facing a blockade from some of its Arab neighbours. Notably these countries cutting off diplomatic relations with Qatar include Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

I’ll let others get into the whys and wherefores of this dispute, only to point out that it’s now been going on for a year. But of relevance to football, this affects access to BeIN in some of those countries.

Egypt had been demanding access to at least some of the games, arguing that the fees that BeIN was charging were beyond many Egyptian’s means (US$90 for the tournament plus an $89 decoder if they don’t already have one). BeIN did eventually agree to make 22 games free to air.

Meanwhile, a new station has appeared on satellite – BeoutQ. It’s essentially taking a pirate feed of BeIN Sports and rebroadcasting it on satellite TV, even going so far as to put its own logo over the top of BeIN Sports pictures:

FIFA is obviously upset about this.

The problem is that the Qatar blockade has prevented the import of BeIN decoder boxes into states like Saudi Arabia, and essentially the population is prevented from subscribing to the channel. The same has been true in the UAE, although the difficulties may have been eased a little of late with existing subscribers being allowed to continue. That doesn’t help new subscribers however.

I’ve no doubt that if you know who to talk to, there are ways and means around this, but for the average viewer, watching the World Cup has suddenly become a lot harder.

You might think that operating a pirate satellite channel isn’t that easy. It’s not as though you can put dodgy gear on the rooftop of a high-rise. You need to up-link to the satellite from an official site. BeoutQ is carried on Arabsat, which is a Saudi company. You might infer then, that’s some kind of official support for this piracy. I couldn’t possibly say.

FIFA’s probably between a rock and a hard place, having sold the regional rights to BeIN, but I don’t have an enormous amount of sympathy for them. They sell rights for the maximum they can get, regardless of reaching as many viewers as they can. And whatever they claim, I seriously doubt that a lot of that cash is being reinvested in football around the world.

In the meantime, I’m told by colleagues that Arabic websites are full of links to VPNs and various European and global sites that offer streams of World Cup games.

[UPDATE] It seems that it’s not only FIFA that’s annoyed about BeoutQ. UEFA has weighed in now, since the channel has been illegally rebroadcasting the Champions’ League. And now F1 is getting upset because their output is also getting rebroadcast.

Incidentally BeoutQ seems to be a whole package of 10 HD channels sitting on the Badr-4 satellite operated by Arabsat. And the link to the UEFA story above shows a business with full retail packaging selling decoder boxes to receive the channel package. Lots more in this NY Times story.

Australia

In Australia, the public broadcaster SBS held the rights to the 2018 World Cup. But public broadcasters like SBS have been under financial pressure, so in 2016 they did a deal with telecoms provider Optus. Optus held the rights to English Premier League games, and would sub-licence one match per week to SBS. SBS in return sub-licenced 39 of the 64 World Cup fixtures for 2018 exclusively to Optus. SBS itself would only broadcast 25 games over the air, including all Australia’s fixtures and the final.

Optus in the meantime, sold access to their exclusive games to Australian viewers for AUS$15 a month.

Things have not gone well.

It seems as though the infrastructure that Optus is using is unable to cope with Australian demand, and subscribers have had to put up with constant buffering and other issues.

Optus have said it was, “Unprecedented demand,” that has caused the problem. Although as many have pointed out, the World Cup is the single most popular sports event in the world, so demand was probably not likely to be “Unprecented.” And it’s not as though Aussies are exactly disinterested in sport.

As a stop gap, SBS is now showing all the games in the tournament for 48 hours while Optus tries to fix their problems. Whether that’s enough time to get things right is another question. If there are fundamental technology problems, then those will take longer to fix. In the meantime, questions are being asked in the Australian parliament.

As an aside, it’s an ongoing story that big audiences and streaming always cause failures – at least first time around. If England gets through the group stage, then ITV has the first knockout stage exclusively. I hope the ITV Player is robust…

[UPDATE] It turns out that 48 hours is not enough time to fix underlying IP streaming issues, and SBS is showing all the remaining group games. Will Optus have fixed things by the time the knockout stages start? Hmm.

[UPDATE 2] And SBS will now be broadcasting the rest of the World Cup as well. Eat humble pie time for Optus.