MBC chief eyes European football broadcast rights

Sheikh Waleed al-Ibrahim discusses acquiring rights for Saudi football league and launching new sports channels

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There was a different type of buzz at the Dubai headquarters of the Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC) Group over the past few days.

Although launching a new channel is no longer an exception but the norm at MBC - which started with a single channel in London in 1991 and now boasts a portfolio which contains well over a dozen TV, Radio channels and digital platforms including this website – the vibe was different this time around given that the group was venturing into a completely new territory: sports.


Indeed, everyone from graphic designers, to producers to top executives were working over night to ensure a phenomenal ‘kick off’ for MBC’s latest acquisition: the Saudi football league which is the region’s biggest and according to several marketing experts one of the few remaining “media gold mines” that remain untapped.

We want to introduce the concept of sports entertainment to the Saudi viewer and to the whole region, we will raise standards and enhance the overall experience

Sheikh Waleed al-Ibrahim

The end result were four new television channels called “MBC Pro Sports”, which viewers in Saudi Arabia and across the region can enjoy watching and are already on its way to becoming an established brand.

The channels were launched following a deal with the Saudi football federation worth 3.6 billion riyals ($ 960 million dollars) which gives MBC the rights to broadcast the league’s matches for the next 10 years. As per the deal, there will also be a number of matches which will be carried by the local Saudi television.

For MBC’s chairman, Sheikh Waleed al-Ibrahim, the deal is more than merely acquiring rights to cover football matches.

Speaking exclusively to Al Arabiya News, Sheikh Waleed says that MBC’s vision is to transform the overall experience of how football is watched and enjoyed in the region.

“We are not only about covering them, we want to introduce the concept of sports entertainment to the Saudi viewer and to the whole region, we will raise standards and enhance the overall experience,” said Sheikh Waleed.

He added that MBC’s commitment to this mission is unshakeable and that viewers should expect nothing less than the highest broadcasting standards which the group has helped define in the region over the past two decades.

“We are in this for the long-haul and viewers should know that when we say that we are proud to have acquired the rights to the most important Arabian football league (the Saudi football league), we take this as a major responsibility on our part.”

As for future plans for MBC’s four new “Pro Sports” channels, Sheikh Waleed reveals that he has his sight set on a number of European football leagues which he says his group will negotiate obtaining the rights for.

“We are eyeing European football leagues that have no commitments at the stage. And there is nothing stopping us to bid for other leagues once their current broadcasting rights contracts expire”.

Furthermore, Sheikh Waleed also reveals that “Pro Sports” will be about more than just football and that the channel will look into covering championships and leagues of various sports “as and when the right commercial partners are found”.

mbc sports logo
mbc sports logo

The league acquisition was a massive deal in Arab television standards. Several newspapers reports and comment pieces spoke of a lack of transparency as to how MBC Group ended up securing the deal.

In particular, a recent report in the Wall Street Journal highlighted a tweet by Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal which suggests that he made a higher bid but still the rights were awarded to MBC.

Prince Al-Waleed’s Kingdom Holding Company (KHC) owns shares in News Corp, the owner of Dow Jones & Co and the publisher of the Wall Street Journal.

We are eyeing European football leagues that have no commitments at the stage. And there is nothing stopping us to bid for other leagues once their current broadcasting rights contracts expire

Sheikh Waleed al-Ibrahim

However, the Wall Street Journal piece didn’t include a response from MBC to the allegations made by Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal who is trying to compete in broadcast media via his Rotana Media Group and after several years of delay, is also aiming to launch a 24-hour news channel from Bahrain called ‘Al-Arab’ which still has an unconfirmed launch date.

Despite it being announced that the overall value of the MBC deal is actually worth SAR 4.1 billion, given that there is an additional SAR 500 million being paid through a partnership with the government, Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal claims that his bid which was worth SAR 4 billion was higher than MBC’s.

Prince Al-Waleed tweeted that the (information) minister has denied the claim (that such a partnership exists).

For his part, MBC’s Sheikh Waleed al-Ibrahim said that “despite some obsolete and inappropriate tweets, the deal stands and is solid, we paid 3.6 billion and the Saudi finance ministry paid 500 million as such the cumulative figure is 4.1 billion and it is higher than any other bid”.

Sources inside the Saudi football federation confirmed that a deal between MBC and the government exists whereby a number of matches will be aired through the Saudi state-owned local channels and that the additional SAR 500 million was indeed agreed as part of the bid.

The source also added that the expiry date for the previous broadcasting contract “was made public to everyone and that MBC has been preparing their pitch from the beginning of the year”.

The same Saudi football federation source added that as far as he knows “the counter bid from the Rotana Media Group wasn’t only too little, but also came in too late after the deadline for submitting offers had passed”.

For his part, a prominent executive at one of Saudi Arabia largest MBU’s (speaking on the condition of anonymity) said that “awarding the deal to MBC rather than Rotana makes perfect sense”.

“First of all, MBC is much more well-established and the return on investment for any advertiser is greater than Rotana upon simply comparing the ratings of the two group’s flagship channels and programs…. this is DESPITE Rotana giving way too many freebies and BOGOF offers on their advertising spots”.

“Second of all, through MBC’s vast network of channels, radio stations and digital platforms, it can create a much better ‘surround system’ effect for covering the Saudi football league than Rotana”.

Independent figures obtained from IPSOS stat, the region’s leading statistics powerhouse, shows that MBC Group is doing much better in terms of advertising spending and viewership both during 2013 and the first half of 2014.

Read also: MBC Group launches sports channels

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